When you went to the salon last week Saturday to plait your hair, you saw a man whose hair looked exactly like Tolani’s. It was a thick, shiny afro that thinned at the temples. You felt giddy. You spent your time seated in the chair flicking your gaze from the magazine you unrolled from your bag and the barber’s nimble-fingered flick of the clippers against the man’s hair. You splurged on your new hairdo. You spared no expense. You had to look pretty for Tolani. He liked your hair. But when you see him on FaceTime this evening, his hair looks nothing like the funky, well-tended afro of the man you saw. It’s a wild, shaggy mop, a lion’s mane framing his face. Only the smiling face and familiar voice remind you of your husband.
“Baby mi, bawo ni?” His voice spews from your airpods. Despite his grinning face, the fatigue drips heavily from his voice. He sounds better today. His voice isn’t thick with cold, like he swallowed a bottle of congealed palm oil.
“Mo wa pa o,” you reply. He likes your conversations in Yorùbá. He doesn’t get to speak it often. Being halfway across the world in Ohio, US, studying a postgraduate degree in alternative medicine, doesn’t give him much chance to speak your native language.
Switching back to English, you ask, “How’re you doing?”
The trademark sigh that sweeps across his face like a dark cloud is almost as predictable as the yarn he launches into – the ever-rising cost of textbooks, his growing fondness for coffee for warmth, his constant tiredness due to working and studying round the clock, and the annoying barks from his neighbour’s dog that deprive him of sleep.
You try to pick a silver lining. “At least you sound better. It hasn’t started snowing yet?”
He often tells you how much he hates the cold. When he landed in the US on a snowy January morning and sent you a picture a couple of days later, his green windbreaker, matching gloves and scarf, and dark jeans made him look like a penguin stuffed in a sack.
You hate doing it. But you never tell him. You pull down your nightdress and lean back from your phone so that the camera can cover your chest. You see his grin. You try to force a smile that doesn’t quite light up your face. When he first asked you to do this, you were horrified.
“What do you mean remove my nightie?” you had yelled.
He tried to placate you. “Bola, think of it like I was there with you. Wouldn’t you take it off if I were there?”
You didn’t know if you were angry or disgusted. Maybe a mix of both. “Tolani, I’m not doing a strip show for you over the phone.”
You ended up having a big fight over it. He told you he missed you. You missed him too. But you never told him. When you spoke two days later, your conversation was wooden. He didn’t broach the subject. You imagined him searching for women on OnlyFans who would shed their clothes for him for a few dollars and wondered if he had found a new source for his pent-up sexual frustrations. Even worse, you thought of Aminata, his Sierra Leonean classmate who often studied with him at his flat till late into the night. It almost seemed like he was doing you a favour by asking you to bare your body to him over the phone. Without him asking, you pulled down your nightdress. His eyes widened in surprise and lust. You heard the rasp of his zip and imagined the shimmy of his hips as he pushed down his briefs. You remembered his wide-eyed, open-mouthed look, like a dying fish trying to suck in air. You clenched your teeth and tried not to look like you’d taken a gulp of water from the toilet. He grunted like a pig and you saw the sticky, syrupy wetness on his fingers before he reached for a tissue.
It’s not any different now.
You pull down your nightdress while he unzips his jeans and strokes himself. You feel sick. Conflicting feelings rise up in you – a slight comfort that distance hasn’t dampened your husband’s desire for you; and repugnance, from the feeling of a cheap porn star doing a private show. You’ve not quite gotten used to it though. You probably never will. You hear that recognizable grunt that is your cue to pull up your nightgown.
“Your hair is too much o,” you say. Just like that. As if what just happened never happened.
He sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “It costs too much to cut hair,” he complains. “I’ll cut it soon.”
He says nothing about your hair. He probably never notices it. You don’t know what makes you feel worse – that he doesn’t take note of it, or that his lack of flattering remarks bothers you so much.
You remind him of his younger sister’s wedding coming up on the weekend. He tells you to have fun.
“I wish we could go together,” you say.
“Me too. But I’m doing this for us. In a few years-“
“I know, I know,” you cut him off, the irritation rising in you, bubbling to the surface like a fizzy drink uncorked.
You hear a beep in the background.
“I have to go,” he says, getting up.
You sigh. You wish you could speak to him for longer. But you don’t tell him. “Okay then,” you reply.
“Later,” he says and rings off.
You go to Simi’s wedding alone. It’s a glitzy affair. You sit in a corner sipping wine. You watch Simi and her new groom dance. They smile and stare in each other’s eyes every chance they get. They remind you of you and Tolani’s wedding. You danced to Toby Keith’s “You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This,” where you clung to each other so tightly it would have been hard getting a sheet of paper between you two. He was already preparing to leave for the US before you got married. He left three months after your wedding. Time enough for you to get used to the weight of him on you at night. You miss everything about him. You miss the intimacy and even those silly, tiny things that irritated you. You have no one to yell at. Your friend Damola envied you when she learned he would be going abroad.
“Omo, your man is going to Yankee. Na ticket remain for you o,” she had said.
Over the past two years, when he told you about buying winter jackets in summer because they were on sale, it made no sense. Neither did it make any sense to you when he mentioned his colleagues who insisted on kissing his cheeks every morning. While he told you of his struggle adapting to a new culture, your conversations gradually made you feel you were talking to a stranger in a world apart from yours. You get used to seeing the dishevelled mop of hair that sits atop his head and the haircut that comes only once a year like Christmas. You get used to the distrust that grows in you like cancer when you see him with Aminata at night.
“We’re just studying baby,” he’d say. He would then reel out a long list of medical terms that made you look stupid. Sometimes, Aminata would say hi to you. Her smile and glasses made her look studious, the kind of woman Tolani liked. She had smooth, dark skin, like groundnuts mashed to a fine paste. Her dreads coiled and piled atop her head, and colourful beads sat at the base of her graceful, swan-like neck. Sometimes when you close your eyes at night tortured by the heaviness in your breasts and the throbbing between your thighs, you imagine your husband, thousands of miles away, running his hands over a woman’s dark skin. Not yours. Aminata’s caramel-brown skin. The distrust festers in you like an unchecked cancer. You hate that the distance between you and Tolani makes your marriage look like a sham. You feel terrible that the phone sex makes a travesty of your love. You hate driving alone. You hate showing up to social events alone. Without Tolani beside you, you feel naked, exposed. You don’t get used to the array of men that make passes at you, like a pack of salivating wolves who spied an unguarded lamb.
When your mother calls you, she doesn’t make you feel any better. She reminds you that you need to pray for Tolani, for the many omo radarada that surround him.
“Mummy, Tolani is fine,” you protest. “He’ll be back when he finishes his program.” You wonder if you’re convincing her or yourself. The last time you FaceTimed him, he mentioned staying for a while longer to make some more money before coming home. I’m doing this for us, baby.
You get more phone calls of the sort from your sister. When your words fail to convince them, you show them the presents Tolani sends every now and then – the beautiful fascinator, the Paul Smith shoes, and the cologne that smells like it carries Venus’ essence. With time, however, you find that the person who needs convincing is yourself. No amount of gifts can make up for his absence, and no amount of video calls can bring you closer to him. Your married life reminds you of a picture, glitzy on the outside and yet fails to tell the thousand words purported to tell. Your friends envy your wealth. You envy their husbands’ availability. You and Tolani take longer to settle your arguments. Your calls end quicker. His program resumes in September. He spends most of his days working to amass as much money as possible – to ensure he has more time to study – and have more money to send to you. After all, he is doing it for you both. You send more gifts to your mother. It’s an umbrella that shields you from her rain of concerns. You stomach your loneliness. You try to fight it. But it’s a futile endeavour, like trying to kill a housefly with a knife.
It’s July. You celebrate your birthday alone, while he’s caught up in the Fourth of July celebrations. You hate that you can’t dress up for your husband. You liked doing that. He did too. Now, he buys you all these dresses he doesn’t get to see you in. Sometimes you send him pictures. His replies are either late, lack enthusiasm, or don’t come at all. You feel it would be self-indulgent to ask if he liked your picture after he tells you he just came back from a twelve-hour shift flipping burgers. Eyes drooping, voice fatigued, he sometimes sleeps off midway talking to you. He rarely asks you to pull down your nightdress anymore. You wonder if he has found another outlet for his needs or if he has a lot more to think about than your body. You’re torn up in a smorgasbord of differing feelings – slightly happy you no longer have to take off your clothes in front of a camera; and slightly perplexed about his disinterest in you. You still do your bit to look the part. Nails filed to a line, make-up impeccably done, clothes snazzy and stylish. You turn heads. It makes you happy to think men still find you attractive even if Tolani doesn’t seem to think so. You laugh at the attention men pay you – coworkers, buff guys at the gym, suited men who queue behind your car at the filling station, and those who offer to buy you drinks when you’re out for a girls’ night out. The desirability you see in men’s eyes when they look at you makes you feel wanted. It’s in perfect harmony with the passion that courses through you like a river undammed. The passion you can’t let out. Your calls with Tolani become more of a chore.
It’s December. You get promoted at work. You become head of your company’s HR department. Tolani passes his exams. It’s a merry Christmas for you both. He cuts that mop on his head. It doesn’t matter to you. You share the good news with each other. It feels empty. It’s like two strangers sharing good news with one another. You don’t bask in his joys. For the first time, you finally realise that the length of distance between both of you has weakened the bonds of affection between you. He has sailed far away, leaving you marooned on your raft of love. Your hands and heart reach out for him, but all you clutch are gossamer of what used to be.
The distance between you has turned your love vaporous.
It’s New Year’s Day. You sit at home and watch balloons pop on TV. You scroll endlessly through your phone searching for anything to amuse you. Tolani calls you. It surprises you.
“Happy new year baby,” you say.
“Happy new year,” he replies.
He tells you about his workload. You trade shallow smiles at each other. Then he mentions his new flat.
You furrow your eyebrows. “New apartment?” You pay close attention to the background. It’s not the same lifeless, dreary grey walls you were used to seeing. The walls are yellow, and the flat looks chunkier, with more furniture.
“Yes,” he says, clearing his throat. “I wanted to tell you over Christmas, I thought it would be better to wait.”
Something about the tone of his voice gives you the feeling of a convict being walked to the gallows. “Tell me what, Tolani?”
He purses his lips. “I moved in with Aminata.”
Your love was growing cold, but it was still there. You feel anger rise up in you, fiery, like the noonday sun. You feel the betrayal behind Aminata’s bespectacled laughing eyes. You are speechless, you have no words. Your heart crumples within you as an empty Coca-Cola can crushed in the hand of a sprightly kid. You remembered when you saw the man in the salon, his glossy hair looking like Tolani’s. You struggle to reconcile both images you have of Tolani. He no longer sounds and looks like the man whose weight you looked forward to resting on you in your bed. You call him every name you can think of. You insult his mother. You insult his father. You insult his upbringing. With his words, he mutilated your insides. You don’t remember ending the call. You tossed your phone on the couch, went to your room and cried.
You blame him. You blame yourself. You cry till your eyes refuse to let out more tears. You wish you had taken off your clothes more often over those stupid video calls. You wish he had never left. You wish he hadn’t stayed so long. You tell your mother about it. She launches into a tirade of “I-told-you-sos.” She berates you for not praying hard enough for him. If only you had been a better wife, she says. When she tells you that, you want to yank her stupid glasses off her face and stick it deep in her eye till it pops like a piñata and sprays blood on you like a fountain.
Tolani sends you a text. He tells you he’s only marrying Aminata for a green card. He ends the text with his trademark I’m only doing this for us, baby. Nonsense. You don’t believe any more of his lies. You text him back. You tell him to fuck off. You imagine how many times he and Aminata have spent time together in bed, his hands running over that caramel skin, her dreads flying free, as she rides him, rides your husband, like she was taking a racehorse on a trip. You think of her ersatz smiles when you called him and found them studying at night. How stupid you were. She must have thought you the biggest fool on earth. How those soft smiles hid a sinister motive.
You try to pull yourself together. It’s not easy. No woman forgets her husband is halfway across the world in the arms of another woman who isn’t her. Your wedding ring feels like a shackle, a reminder of the farce your marriage has descended into. You want to take it off and flush it down the toilet. But you know doing so will only bring more questions, pointed fingers, and hushed whispers when you walk past. So you keep wearing it. You begin frequenting bars alone, without your girls. Under the cover of the dark, you take off your ring. You flirt back with men. You met Seye on one of such nights. He strode about the bar with the cocksure coolness of a predator on the hunt. He was tall and had a pleasant face that sent easy, practised smiles at you all night. You took him home. You felt bashful initially. Tolani had been your first and only man. Seye whispered in your ears. His tongue played catch with yours. The sex was fantastic. It blew your mind. He ran his hands over you with the expertise of an experienced sailor handling an unfamiliar map in a quest for treasure. For the first time in a long time, you slept without thoughts of Tolani and Aminata on the other side of the world.
Tolani still texts you. You don’t reply him. You can’t. Sex with Seye numbs your pain. It’s your drug. You discover your body can twist in positions you never thought of. There is no emotional connection, it’s simply sex.
June rolls by. It’s Tolani’s birthday. You’re still hurt, but the haze of anger that clouded your mind has gradually settled. You remember how you celebrated his birthday when you were in Nigeria. How he was happy you were celebrating it beside him. You remember his gentle nature, and how he called you his better half. You remember how you met. You remember how you started dating after transitioning from a deep friendship. You remember how he used to be your safe space when you were dating. You’d talk to him about anything – PMS from your periods, how silly guys were, gossip about your adulterous aunt, and the scar you got from falling from a tree when you were eleven. You remember when you fell in love with him – when he grabbed a microphone at your sister’s wedding and sang for you. You find yourself crying. The thought digs up memories you had shelved in dark corners of your mind. You’re not happy. Sex hasn’t brought you the succour you thought it would. You wonder if Tolani is happy. He probably doesn’t deserve happiness, but you wonder still. You wonder if Aminata brings him happiness. It hurts you, but you don’t stop thinking of it anyway. You cry harder. In the depth of your pain, you realize something.
You still love Tolani.
You gradually lose interest in sex with Seye. He doesn’t mind. That was all it was for him anyway. You think of Tolani more. You think of FaceTiming him. You practice what you want to say. But you find that you keep forgetting. You finally find the courage to call him. You FaceTime him. Your hands are clammy and your stomach feels queasy. He picks. But unless his hair grew into dreads and he’s started wearing beads around his neck, that’s not him.
You both stare at each other for what seems like ages. You find that instead of the anger you feel towards her, you’re surprised you only feel numbness inside.
“Hi,” she finally says.
“Hi,” you croak. Where’s Tolani?
She has a desolate look on her face. She shakes her head at your unasked question. “He’s not here.”
Your breath quickens. What does she mean? “What-what do you mean, he’s not here?” Your breath comes out in gasps.
“He has gone,” she says, tears filling her eyes. Her hand shakes. She sniffs loudly and wipes her nose. “I’m so sorry, for everything.” The tears spill from her eyes.
Your heart beats like a war drum in your chest. You’re frantic. “Aminata, talk to me, what’s going on?”
Then she pulls herself together and tells you. Your mouth drops open, chest heaving.
Aminata still sniffles. “I’m sorry,” she apologises again. “I have to go. Goodbye,” she says. She ends the call.
It takes you several moments to pull yourself together.
Tolani was deported. The green card sham blew up in his face. His passport expired before he and Aminata could get married. Your head swoons with a rush of emotions.
Tolani was closest to Simi. On a whim, you call her. Your hunch is right. He has been with her for the past two months. Teary-eyed, you beg to talk to him. She tells you he talks to no one. You plan to go over to her place. She hesitates. Crying, you beg her some more. Your tears break her resolve. She gives in and promises not to tell him.
You can’t remember the drive from your house in Maryland to Simi’s house on the Island. You’ve not felt this nervous since the day you went for your first job interview in Zenith Bank. You find yourself counting down the time till you see Tolani. You wonder what you’ll say to one another. You’ll probably never ask him if he had sex with Aminata. You also hope he won’t ask you if you’ve been with another man. They’ll sit between you, words you’ll never utter, heavy on both your chests. You sit in your car to gather your thoughts for a while. You get out of the car and begin the walk to the door. Your legs feel heavy, like they’ve turned into cement. You ring the bell. Your breath catches in your throat as the hinges swing back.
You see Tolani.
He looks a shadow of himself. His eyes are sunken and heavy stubble covers his jaw. He’s leaner than you remember. Few strands of hair sit on his head. You’ve read the ignominy deported people suffer. You wonder if he was hauled out of Aminata’s apartment in only his briefs, or he was in the middle of an Anatomy class when it happened. But none of that matters. You always wanted to be home with him. You discover home isn’t Nigeria or the US. Home is where he is. He’s home. That’s all that matters. He tries to smile at you. It’s a ghost of a smile, alien to the wide smile you’re used to. But he’s home now. You’ll love each other back to life.
Your eyes are jars of unshed tears. But you manage to smile back at him.
“Hey,” you say, your voice shaky like your insides.
His smile grows wider. He stands aside for you to enter. Your insides leap. You wrap your hands around him. He holds you tight. He feels different. He smells differently too.
But you don’t care.
He’s home, that’s all that matters. He’s home.
You’re home too.
About the Author
Adédoyin Àjàyí writes from Lagos. His work has appeared in Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review, Afrocritik, Livina Press, Nantygreens, Literary Yard, Fiction Niche, Literally Stories, Maudlin House and African Writer. He self-published his collection of short stories, “Too Short a Tale,” last year. He tweets @AjayiAdedoyin14.