‘I am going to marry another wife.’
I heard the words. I froze. I wondered how many wives have heard such words and frozen like I have, their breath suspended for a heartbeat?
This is not a new story. It has been told many times before now in many languages and places, sometimes with tears, bitter laughter, irony and sometimes gratitude. It has been told in whispered conferences as women shared confidences; in raised tones as they laid bare their grievance; with a twisted smile when shared with children who have come of age. I tell it again, this story of my husband’s wife, as one who wonders: When did the thought first take hold in his mind?
I wondered if he was like Chief who said that women are like dishes and that a man should have a varied menu. Chief’s menu was varied indeed – two wives and a legion of girl friends.
Or was he like those who marry several wives because the marriage to the first wife had become like a wilted carrot – unpleasant to the eye and no challenge to the teeth.
My mind fumbled for words. I tried to shake off the acute sense of betrayal and failure that covered me. I could hear a fly buzzing at the mosquito net, anxious to escape from the room. Its buzzing filled my head.
‘She’s divorced. She has two children,’ he said.
‘Ah. Children. She has children.’
Children. That never-ending-always-hurting issue.
‘I understand how you feel right now.’
I laughed a harsh, disbelieving laugh.
‘This will not change anything between us.’
It already had.
He sighed because, perhaps, it was easier to sigh than to say anything.
I fixed my gaze upon the lace curtain as it rose from the window then fell back soundlessly. I looked at it intently so that I would not have to look at him.
‘I need to talk to you’ he had said. We had come to the sitting room and sat down. It had been so formal that somewhere in my stomach, something twisted but I paid no attention to it. He had attempted to speak but had gotten stuck after the initial ‘I’. The twisting thing in my stomach grew cold and inched its way upwards towards my chest. I sat back slowly, knowing that I’d hate whatever he was going to say and when he did speak, I froze…
My cousin said that she knew the bride to be. A divorcee with two daughters could not be much of a competition; he must have felt sorry for her. I began to think that perhaps it would be alright. I agreed to go with my cousin to see this bride to be. Not a formal visit, mind you, but to peep at her from a distance so I could see with my eyes what she was like.
I hoped she would be ugly, maybe walk with a limp or crutches; or maybe she would have a scar that ran right down the middle of her face then veered to the right (or left – the direction is not relevant) so that I could laugh at her or pity her.
My hopes died when I saw her. She was beautiful. Her smile, as she flashed it at an acquaintance, was gentle.
Each time I looked at my face in the mirror, I saw a face which did not require facial surgery but could hardly be called beautiful. I had often consoled myself by saying, ‘Beauty is only skin deep.’ This new bride to be would not need such clichéd consolation because her mirror would tell her that she is beautiful.
That day, I learnt that just as eavesdroppers hear no good of themselves, peeping wives only see what will increase their heartache. I creep away, my pride hobbling after me. ***
My garland of friends came to comfort me with tales of horrendous experiences, all of the ‘other woman’ variety.
My friends poured into my anxious ears tales of poisoning (keep her away from your baby); of clandestine visits to medicine men (prayers alone will not suffice, get your own “African insurance”); of physical battles (thank God she is petite and you are not); of husbands gone mean (he’s still nice to you? Just wait until she enters the house); of sly plans to shove the Wife In The House out (watch her every move, don’t trust her and NEVER, EVER take advice from her because that’s just a way to lull you into complacency so that when you turn your back to her, she’ll stick a knife or a knitting pin or anything handy in it).
After each tale and advice session, my blood would start to race; I would be very jumpy and I would see a malicious co-wife hiding under every bed and behind every door.
My younger sister had only ugly names for all men when I told her. She cursed, hissed, clapped her hands in amazement and cursed some more. She was so busy saying all kinds of nasty things about all husbands that I began to feel that she had forgotten me and my troubles. I was reassured that she had not forgotten me when she volunteered to slash my husband’s car tyres or beat up that woman if she ever misbehaved. After this visit, I was quite miserable.
It has been twelve years since all that tumult. As I read the entries I made in my diary of those hurtful days, I am surprised that I am still here in this marriage and so is she. More surprising is the fact that we actually get along with each other.
We have become friends. Ours is not a friendship of convenience. Nor is it the type forged over the fire of mutual dissatisfaction with our husband.
Our friendship might have started the day I had a flat tyre and she showed me how to change it.
It might have been the day when, after a heavy downpour kept her at her uncle’s place, her daughters sat in my apartment to wait for her when they returned early from their extra lessons.
Perhaps it was several minor acts like this that made us realise that neither one of us had any wicked intentions. Perhaps it also helped that he did not complain about one of us to the other.
This story of my husband’s wife is not over yet but I hope it will not end like many other stories. May it not end like those where one wife has to leave the marriage dead or alive in order for the other to be happy; or those where the battle of the wives is inherited by their children; or the wives stop fighting or arguing only when age kills their hearing. I am hopeful that my story will end differently.
As for my relationship with my husband, there are times when I forget that the woman in the next apartment is my husband’s wife.