by Uche Okonkwo
He knew he wanted her, even before he knew her name. And so when he approached her that Sunday after church service, he wasn’t playing around. He wanted to marry her, and he said so. She’d recoiled, her frown doing nothing to age her child-like face, and for five seconds – he’d counted – she looked at him like he was the strangest thing she’d seen all year. Then she laughed and said, don’t you even want to know me first, mister man.
When he asked, she gave him her number, typing the digits into his phone with fingertips that had swollen around her nails from relentless gnawing.
He liked her short, well-chewed nails, liked that her face – with lips the colour of an overripe udara – was always without makeup, liked that the yellow skin of her legs was always covered in pants or long skirts. He liked that she never wore weaves or braids in scandalous colours, and never past her shoulders. He liked that she didn’t have her own car, and that she let him drive her around Owerri on weekends. It made him feel good that she’d attended a polytechnic and not a university like him, and that she’d been unable to find work since she finished school three years ago. And even though he worried about being able to provide for a family on his own with his modest income, he knew it would take something from him when she began to work. If she began to work.
She was a virgin. He was sure of this until he asked. She’d looked away and right then he had his answer. When he asked how many men she had slept with, it was hard to keep the judgement from his tone, to keep his throat from tightening with resentment. One. Just one, she’d said, looking at the hands clasped on her thighs. He spelled it out in his head: O-N-E. His hands clenched into fists, but they slowly loosened as he watched her. He was taken by the way she wouldn’t, couldn’t, meet his eyes, like a child caught with her fingers in her mother’s pot. This let him know that she knew she was not worthy of him; he who had kept himself pure all thirty-five years of his life. Aside from those times when the devil sneaked up on him at night and pulled the semen from him while he slept, he had never poured his seed. Well, except for those three other times in the shower. Or was it five? But even those times, he’d only been trying for a vigorous wash and had ended up pleasuring himself by accident. God knew.
He would forgive her, because even though he was good, he was not perfect. O-N-E was forgivable. O-N-E was manageable. Besides, she was a new creation and all her old things had passed away.
It was their wedding night.
Thirty-five years was a long time for a man to wait, and so when he reached for her and she asked, with a teasing laugh, are you not tired from the wedding, he did not laugh back. His answer was a simple no.
She had slipped into the adjoining bathroom, leaving the door open, and now he sat on the bed, waiting in the near-dark for her to emerge from the shower. He could see her half unpacked boxes and bags, and her things strewn around the room, and he remembered the gratitude of his in-laws; the eagerness with which they’d received his family and the pride with which they showed him off. Our in-law the banker, they’d said. He felt an immense swelling of pride that slowly settled in his loins.
Just as he opened his mouth to call to her to hurry up, she came out of the bathroom. She did not turn off the light behind her, and he wanted to tell her to do so. But the words got stuck in his throat, and he felt something like reverence mix with his arousal. The glow from the bathroom light silhouetted her, and he slid on his buttocks to the edge of the bed, mesmerised as she took slow steps to him, the smell of Dettol and Lux preceding her. She knelt before him and ran her hands over his bare chest. They were cool from the shower, and he trembled as they reached the waistband of his pyjama bottoms. He held her hands to stop her.
He rose and took off his pyjamas. Naked, he gazed at her. She shifted on her knees, raising her face with a questioning look.
Remove the towel and lie on your back, he said.
Don’t you want to… play small, she asked.
A doubt crossed his mind. But he ignored it. This was not school, and she was not his teacher.
Just do as I say, he said.
She stood and let the towel fall, and his eyes were drawn to her chest. Her nipples shone in the dull light and he ached to taste them. The throbbing between his legs was almost painful.
Climb on the bed, he said.
Keeping her front to him, she eased herself backward onto the bed. All the while, she did not stop looking at him. When she’d laid down and spread her legs, he began to lower himself onto the bed.
Only then did he see it.
Three words, superimposed in black ink on the fair skin just below her navel, in cursive: ‘Adamu wuz ere’. And a thin arrow pointing the way down to the mass of black curls between her legs.
When he could move again, he closed his eyes and rubbed them. Perhaps they were playing tricks on him in the poor light. When he opened his eyes, the words were still there. On his wife.
His voice was quiet when he spoke: What is this?
Em… tattoo. She searched his face. She added one word: sorry.
He read the words out: Adamu was… here. Then he looked at her. Adamu was where?
Her eyes flitted about like she was looking for a place to escape to. Adamu is… Adamu was the person I told you about… from before.
The man you fornicated with. That is Adamu?
He looked at her and she looked back. Anger churned in his stomach, and the food from his wedding threatened to surge up his throat and out through his nostrils. He crawled off her, to the empty side of the bed, and sat there with his hands gripping his thighs, careful to avoid touching her skin.
So, after you fornicated with this… this Adamu – he spat the name – you now thought it was a good idea to leave a permanent reminder. You were proud of your sin, bah, that is why you chose to advertise it on your body.
She shook her head no. It was a dare, she said, I dared him to do something and he won, so my punishment was… the tattoo.
Adamu. What had she been doing with a person named Adamu in the first place? He couldn’t have been a Christian, not with that name. Was this Adamu even circumcised? He shuddered. He reminded himself that at that time of her life she’d probably been in the throes of sin and hadn’t known any better. But that hadn’t stopped her from enjoying herself with this Adamu. How else could he explain the wistful sigh she’d let out as she talked about the tattoo just now. They must have laughed, she and her Adamu, when she got it. And every time they’d… every time they’d had… relations, they must have laughed some more, tickled by their little tattoo and by the thought of what was in store for the next man who would venture down there.
Adamu was here. Even now when he wasn’t.
Well he would show them – her and Adamu both – that he was more than just the next man. He was the husband, and he would erase every trace, every memory of this Adamu.
He clambered on top of her, balancing his weight on his elbows, and then he guided himself into the folds between her legs.
No, no, not there, she said, and he wanted to slap her mouth shut.
A bit higher… higher, she said.
As soon as he found the right opening, he thrust hard, forcing a yelp from her lips. He groaned and dug deeper, uncertain if there should be that much resistance down there. But the sounds she let out urged him on, and he liked the fleshy warmth and the feel of his pubic hair meshing with hers. He put his back into it. By the fifth thrust his body began to jerk, and he felt a pleasure so intense his vision blurred and his eyes rolled back in his head. He froze for a second, and then warmth flooded his being as he emptied himself. He flopped onto her, his heart racing, and she patted his buttocks over and over, a gesture he found patronising. He rolled over onto the cool sheets and she got off the bed and went into the bathroom. He heard running water, and then silence, and after a short while she returned to the room. She didn’t turn off the bathroom light.
She got on the bed with a sigh and lay, still naked, with her back to him. He wanted to touch her. The questions to the answers he wanted would not form in his mind, and so he stared at her back and listened to her breathe. He felt something suspiciously close to shame.
Then he remembered she was the one who’d brought Adamu into their bed, first by sleeping with him and, worse, by immortalising his claim over her body. That tattoo was like a second-place plaque hammered onto every wall of his house. And her, she was not the woman he thought he had married. How could he even be sure Adamu had been the only one before him? Why did she seem to know so much about what men and women did in the dark, to the point where she’d had the gall to act disappointed with his performance?
That was the problem with ‘repentant’ sinners like her; their taste for the things of the flesh would never truly leave them.
He should have waited for a virgin.
Hours passed and he could not find sleep. It sickened him that each time he… went to visit with his wife, Adamu would be there, applauding from the finish line, mocking his performance. His wife snored beside him, splayed on her back across her half of the bed, and he pondered the situation.
He could not divorce her, especially not now that he’d slept with her and consummated their marriage. What reason would he give? What would their pastor say? And all the people at church who knew them, what would he tell them? What could he tell them? Her shame was now his shame.
He thought about his in-laws, about all the gifts he’d given, his bank accounts virtually emptied out to fund the wedding. He was not returning his bride; she’d been too expensive. Besides, that would mean Adamu winning, and that, more than anything else, would haunt him till the day he died.
What he needed now was a solution that would cost him no more than the problem already had. A solution that would let him win.
The answer came to him as the first light of dawn started to filter in through the window blinds. He got out of bed, careful not to wake his wife.
He went into the kitchen, turned the kettle on.
If peace were a sound, it would be the sound of the water coming to boil. He walked back to the bedroom, the kettle in one hand. By the time the scars healed, Adamu would no longer be.
– Uche Okonkwo is a freelance writer and managing editor at Kachifo Limited, one of Nigeria’s foremost independent publishers. She also works as a freelance writer and editor. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester, UK.
Uche won the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Flash Fiction. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Manchester Anthology 2012/2013, Per Contra, The Ember Journal, Ellipsis and Ploughshares. She enjoys road trips and theatre. Read more of her work on her blog.