The smile she holds on her lips is like mashed red pepper, it begins to get uncomfortable after a while. Amenze watches the city fixtures – the two-stories, the three-stories, the high rises, the filling stations, the shopping complexes, the electric poles and the cellular towers – do their morning sprints with a purpose she could only imagine.
She has been wearing her usual smile since she got into the car – a smile that doesn't extend any graciousness to her slanted eyes – because Monday, her husband, has declared with an unfazed shrug that he does not have the money for her today. That is the declaration he voiced but not the only one she heard.
They are sitting side by side in his old Corolla – Monday driving himself to work and Amenze, to her mother's. Occasionally when he has to halt for traffic, he turns to her and stares. She wonders what he thinks of her smiling in spite of his insufferable attitude towards her. Does he think, she wonders, that this epitomizes my life in this marriage which has been to smile in spite of everything?
"When is it enough?" Amenze asks suddenly, already hating herself for speaking to him.
"What?" he asks, not because he hasn't heard her clearly but because he wants her to talk some more.
She doesn't say anything because she will not, for the life of her, oblige him this blessed morning. She turns away instead to the fleeting scene of two women fighting in a street corner. Ehn ehn, this early morning, she thinks.
Monday makes a humph as he eyes the rowdy scene of the women’s nakedness on the side mirror; wrappers and braziers have been torn and are sprawled carelessly in the heat of the ensuing brawl. A crowd has quickly formed and encircles the belligerent pair in a cheering ring.
"You are doing this thing again," Monday begins to say. They had driven in silence for a considerable length of time within which he had toyed with the dial of the car radio which now broadcast muffled voices from a morning drive show.
When she does not respond, he continues: "you act like it's my fault that I don't have any money today, when you told me about the money you needed for the store today, did I not tell you that I will try my best, why are you so bent on not understanding? Ehn? You women."
"And you men," she says in a half-shout, clearly unable to remain silent, "is it today I've been talking about opening a store? How about when Junior was born? Or after Angel? Why is there always something convenient for you to say when I ask for money to start a business? Why don’t you ever support me?"
Amenze had seen the ‘For Let’ sign in front of one of the stores of the shopping complex she’d had her eyes on for a while – it fit her desires to the T. She liked that the complex was very accessible from the main road and consciously built for businesses (unlike others she’d seen); she found the spacious and well-ventilated stores to her taste (she’d even made friends with some of the renters just to get a feel of these), and she’d marveled at the upper-middle-class clientele the complex managed to attract.
Almost five months ago, she’d seen all this and the vision for her beauty salon and spa had taken shape. Such a good place had the obvious catch though – they had run out of stores to let as soon as they’d put word out. It was therefore providence that an occupant was giving up their spot to join their family abroad.
On the advice of one of her new friends, Amenze had met the manager to declare interest and he’d really liked her beauty spa idea – no current seller was doing that in the complex. He’d been gracious enough to give her a week to make a down payment for the store but now, Monday was doing his thing.
She looks out the window as a traffic light turns red. An old man with a megaphone is screaming repent pugnaciously. Monday does not say anything for a while, just looks from the dashboard to the side mirror and she wonders in the noisome silence of his car, not for the first time, why the distance from their home to her mother's is such a journey.
Her mother, ever on her neck to give up housewifeship, had been elated at the news of the opening and had offered to invest with first year’s rent but Amenze had declined. She hadn’t wanted to take her mother’s money even in the guise of a loan.
Although Amenze didn’t tell her mother, she’d declined simply because she didn’t want to anger Monday who did not like her mother’s constant talk of financial independence for her daughter. As he’d often told her, he was a ‘traditional African man’ and could provide for his family.
Moreover, he’d expressly told her that if she was going to engage in any enterprise, it would be under his full supervision. So she’d honestly thought Monday would have been enthusiastic about the opportunity – he was after all always investing in the ideas of his friends and kinsmen.
Monday suddenly speaks – softly: "things are hard now, I want you to start the business, you think I don't but come off it. When Junior was born, yes, I know I told you to nurse him first and after that, you know that's when I lost that job with Strait Construction."
“And all the many years after?” Amenze is suddenly very tired of his histrionics, "you got another job, got a car, two or three promotions but anytime I bring up the business issue, you have one excuse or the other and that’s why we are stagnant. No one can do it alone anymore. I mean what have we achieved? Do you think about that? We are still paying house rent while power couples are moving into their second houses…"
"See, I don't even want you doing that business that attracts those low-life gossipy types, let's plan big, you know, open a supermarket."
Amenze laughs a bitter laugh, an old, well-worn anger beginning to clothe her chest.
"Eh, you know, all that dirty salon life is not what I want for you, trust me, I'll surprise you."
She smiles at the irony, a hmm escaping with her breath, "you have surprised me enough," she says slowly, almost sadly, "to think you have the guts to mention supermarket. You think I don't know.” She didn’t know: was merely working on a nagging suspicion.
"Know what?" he asks, looking at her strangely.
"You think I'm stupid?" she hisses.
Amenze looks at him again, fishing, wondering if she should voice her misdoubts; how she should voice her misdoubts, "you think I don't know you opened a supermarket for that Precious lady?"
Some time while they had been talking, he had rolled up the windows because as she delivers this, her words bounce about the car, perhaps desperate for a way out. The voices from the radio have stopped talking altogether: replaced by a faint static sound.
"I have not seen her since that time," he stutters, referring to that time she had caught them leaving a hotel together, that time that he’d replaced her beautiful smiles with these imitations, that time she’d been told to fight, with prayer and subservience as is expected of a good wife for her man because a she-devil had entrapped her innocent husband in an inextricable entanglement. She’d wondered why she was the one who had to do something about his unfaithfulness. Did everyone think it was somehow her fault that his eyes could be turned by another?
"You must not believe everything your friends tell you, eh” he continues to say, assuming she’d heard it from people around, by so doing, confirming that there was some truth to it, “most of them are jealous of you and want to spoil your marriage, I mean, where will I get the money to open a supermarket on my salary, you still be reasoning now.”
If she had merely heard it from friends, she would have written it off as silly hearsay but she had seen the loan approval document in his drawer as well as a title deed to land, just before a friend had called her to say that Monday’s girlfriend had opened a supermarket. Now that she thinks about it, she hadn’t really looked at the documents but the coincidence had been too much - he’d borrowed money, had bought land and his gal had opened a supermarket.
It did not hurt her when it crossed her mind that he had secretly opened the business for his darling Precious – she was done fighting that hopeless fight – but that he had obtained a loan in this economy, further complicating their financial position and jeopardizing the future of her children – that had scared her. She no longer wanted to be under the mercies of a man who wasn’t thinking straight.
She looks at him, her eyes filling with irritating tears; her lips twitching with disbelief, pain, and regret. Anger crawls gleefully on her skin and all her emotions tighten to a choke, and then suddenly she heaves and says, "I saw the documents, you took a loan for your girlfriend, how thoughtless?”
Monday turns to her briefly and then back at the road: "I was going to surprise you, but that's not for her, it’s our land, I'm building a house for us."
Amenze’s face crumples. She can see that he expects that she must now realize that all her worries and complaints are suddenly invalidated by his revelation; that even though she’d given eleven years of her life in marriage to him, his decision to solely undergo a building project without so much as a word to her must suddenly make up for his cheating and emotional manipulations, for the financial sabotage all through the years.
There and then, she decides she had been wrong about her marriage. Here she’d thought there was still something worth keeping. Yes, she was in it with a domineering cheat; a ‘traditional African man’ but she’d actually believed that at his core, he wasn’t that backward. Early in their marriage, he’d really seen her; he’d listened to her talk about her aspiration with a light of admiration that had emboldened her.
Now, it was apparent that she had never really seen him as anything but that man who’d shared in her dreams all those years ago. The manipulation and cheating, those she’d rationalized as a temporary slip-up; something to be blamed on the pressures of the world that plagues the man. Now, she understood that the biggest manipulation was that, in spite of all he’d done, she’d still thought the world of him.
She could see now that there was no use holding him to any standard, no point agonizing over his philandering, wondering where the loving husband she married had gone to for he was right there sitting with her in his old Corolla, just no longer loving. There was no family peace to worry about sullying and no love to put into consideration; everything healthy and desirable in their marriage had at some point in the eleven years been washed off like vomit from a bib.
But there were her children to consider. And there was she to think of. There and then, she decided – she would start her business without him, because she could, thank God she could. She would take the money her mother had offered, start her spa and no bloody man would be able to stop her. She smiles – a true smile this time; one that reaches and conquers her eyes; one that stretches her lips into a victorious rictus – a miracle she hadn’t thought she was capable of.