“Would you like more coffee?” Lum repeated the question she had just asked her husband, her voice a little louder, her tone more insistent. He had not heard her the first time, lost in his paper as he was. He still did not hear her, apparently. His eyes scanned the page in front of him, his brows furrowed in concentration.
Lum sighed in defeat and leaned back in her chair. Her own breakfast of scrambled eggs and dodo – strips of ripe plantains lightly salted and deep fried to savoury perfection – forgotten. The tightness in her chest that had come to be her constant companion over the last year threatened to spill over into tears. What is the matter with him? How had it become so easy for him to ignore her? To act like she wasn’t there? This is not how it was supposed to be. Her marriage was not supposed to have been reduced to heavy silence over breakfast after only 5 years.
She and James had been the couple everyone had declared was destined to be. She was the good girl from the good family. Lovely with her slim and tall build, caramel skin, warm brown eyes and infectious laugh. She was smart…maybe too smart. School had always been easy for her. Easy to the point of being boring. She had sailed through primary and secondary school excelling as one of the brightest students to have graced the halls of both PNEU Bamenda and Our Lady of Lourdes College. The news that she had passed all 11 of her O’Level subjects with grade A, had hardly shocked her even though her parents had been ecstatic. She’d been a shoo in for St. Bede’s College, recognized in Cameroon as one of the top institutions for high school She had gone in expecting to continue her reign of undisputed queen of the books. Then she met James.
James Atiba, undisputed king of the books at St. Bede’s College. James who was so ridiculously handsome with his smooth dark skin, she had dropped her books in nervousness the first time he spoke to her. James who, despite coming from a background of privilege ( 2 medical doctors for parents, one director of the WHO Office for Cameroon no less) had been so humble and so approachable she had fallen in love with him within seconds. James who had challenged her intellectually – the first of anyone ever. He had made her try harder to excel at school, no longer assuming she would be the best. She had become more than willing to work on being the best, especially if it meant beating James. They had both picked five subjects for their A’Levels. Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths and Further Maths. It was only to be expected. She was excellent at Biology and Physics. He was wobbly in comparison, but could solve Math problems in his sleep. They both were solid in Chemistry. Their rivalry, good natured as it was, had been the talk of St. Bede’s. One particular day, they had exasperated their teacher with each trying to out do the other in Maths class. The teacher had chuckled and said
“Atiba and Abongwe, leave some questions for other people to answer!” to which the whole class has roared in laughter.
After that, Atiba and Abongwe had become a running joke.
When he got senior prefect and she got assistant, the slogan had been “Atiba and Abongwe, leave some posts for other people.”
When they had both gotten malaria and spent days in the infirmary: “Atiba and Abongwe, leave some sickness for other people”
The times they spent studying together: “Atiba and Abongwe, leave some book for other people”
When it had become clear that they were into each other, despite their squabbles: “Atiba and Abongwe, leave some love for other people.”
After high school, he had gone abroad to the US to study chemical engineering and she had stayed in Cameroon to attend medical school. It had not been an easy separation. She’d been sure he would go abroad, move on and forget about her but he had kept contact. Calling, emailing, Hi5 and then Facebook. When he came home to visit in the summer, they had roamed Yaounde, their home town together. High on young love.
He had taken her virginity. It had happened during one of his visits home for the summer. The year he graduated college, her fourth year in medical school. They had spent the day watching movies at his parents palatial house in Bastos. His mother was out of the country for some conference and his father had not yet come home from work. They had been the only two people there, the maid and yardman out goodness knows where. James joked often that they were secretly carrying on and she would soon show up pregnant.
It had started innocently enough. They were cuddled together on the couch, watching The Matrix: Reloaded, a favorite for both of them. It was the umpteenth time they were watching the movie and they spent most of it arguing over the laws of physics the movie broke and if it were at all possible for those feats of acrobatics and and martial arts to happen in real life. It was an old argument. One they had had a thousand times before. She had been explaining why the scene where Neo flies for the first time is quite possibly the best scene in the movie. He’d been watching her with a small smile on his face. That smile. It was his special smile. The smile he knew irritated her to no end because it was condescending…more a smirk really than a smile. Losing her patience, she had hit him with a pillow.
“You’re not even listening to me!”
“Of course, I am…” his voice had made her shiver. Deep and warm, now tinged with an American accent. “I just can’t concentrate on what you’re saying because I want to kiss you so much.”
She hadn’t been able to reply, stunned to silence by his intimate words.
“Oh Lumsie… you’re such an innocent.” He teased reaching out to tap her nose, another patronizing gesture which she hated, and he knew she hated. “I talk about kissing and you freeze like a scared rabbit.”
“I am not an innocent.” she’d said evenly. “You think because you’ve lived in America, you invented sex.”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Oh-ho!…Look who can now say the word sex without stuttering, it’s good to know med school is draining that shyness out of you.”
She’d rolled her eyes at him.
“So, have you had sex?” He pressed on. She gave him an arch look.
“Like I’m even going to dignify that question with an answer” She said tartly. To which he chuckled.
“Good, because I want to be your first.” He said, confident of her affections. That had cracked her up, but not for long because while she was chortling, he pulled her to him and started kissing her. The rest was history.
It had been a weird experience. Nothing quite as magical as she had hoped, fueled by years of reading romance novels. What had disturbed her the most was that he’d never looked in her eyes the way the guys in her books did. And his erection had ebbed and flowed, the ebbing corresponding with when his eyes had been open and the flowing with when they were closed. He had seemed tense, overly focused on his performance. She had thought it would be more relaxed, more fun. She chalked it down to nervousness.
She continued to watch him, read his paper. His breakfast cold and forgotten. Even his coffee, the one vice he had brought back with him from America, an addiction so powerful he got head aches if he hadn’t had a cup by 9 am, sat forgotten in front of him. The only sounds present were the hum of the air conditioning, so necessary in Douala where they now lived, and the muted voices from the TV in their living room which was tuned to CNN as it was every morning so he could catch up with the news before leaving for work. They had a good life. She was a surgeon at LaQuintinie Hospital and he an engineer with Schlumberger. She’d been relieved when he’d turned down several offers for positions in the US to come work back home. So had her parents. James had been her only boyfriend ever and in their eyes he was perfection. The thought of her marrying someone else had been abhorrent to them. Their approval of him knew no bounds and as her father had stated at their lavish wedding, he couldn’t have chosen a better son-in-law himself had it been left up to him. And perfect he was. So perfect, the perfection bothered her sometimes. From his surreal good looks to his easy attitude. It seemed almost scripted sometimes, like he was making an effort to be exactly what he was expected to be. Sure, from time to time after a couple of drinks, he let loose and she did not doubt that he cared deeply for her, but he kept a tight reign on himself.His manners were perfect, his work ethic perfect, he went to church, he was attentive to her and his parents and their extended family. He remembered birthdays and anniversaries. Bought gifts, had people over for lunch, offered help when it was necessary, gave the best advise. He little brother worshiped the ground he walked on and her sisters all had crushes on him. The only person who had seemed to not like him had been her grandmother. After meeting him for the first time, when she and James had just both passed the A Levels and he’d come to take her out for a celebratory party, , Mami-Lum for whom Lum was named, had narrowed her eyes and said something in the dialect. Something Lum had not understood. Later when, she asked Anasta, their house maid who her mother had brought from the village to interpret, Anasta had chuckled and said;
“You know Mami-Lum with her strange talk… she said…Don’t be too happy when you see a shiny mango. They sometimes have worms on the inside.“
Lum had puzzled over it and then pushed it to the back of her mind. Mami-Lum was known to have been a cryptic old lady.
The first two years had been bliss. They had vacationed together, taking a trip around Europe for their honeymoon and then came home to pick out their apartment in Bonapriso. They had furnished it with the best of hand crafted furniture and art they could find, to give it a modern afrochic look. Her kitchen was state of the art, everything in it’s place, appliances bought from the best stores in the country or imported from abroad. James used it more often than she did actually. Apparently cooking was something he had discovered while studying in America. They had settled into married life easily, going to work and coming home to each other. They watched movies and ate out, enjoyed the night life. The sex had been good…or as good as she had ever had, seeing as he was the only person she had ever slept with. They were not going to try for kids for another year. They had been content with enjoying each other for the moment. Until this distance. Where had this distance come from?
At first, she had thought he was having affair. That was the only reason she could come up with to explain his sudden withdrawal. It had been right about when his best friend from college, Joel had been visiting. Joel was French Cameroonian, his father an expat who had made Douala his home. They had moved in different circles while in secondary school. Joel had gone to Sacred Heart College, while James to St Bede’s but in America, surrounded by a sea of unfamiliarity that was the Dartmouth College campus, they had become fast friends, even studying Chemical Engineering together. After graduating, Joel had taken a job with an American company while James had moved back home. During Joel’s first visit, both men had gone out partying together, one night. Lum had stayed home, exhausted after a day of surgery. That had been when the distance had begun. Approximately, 3 years ago. Joel had since then returned to the US briefly and then moved back to Cameroon completely
She had put it off as him being preoccupied with his friends visit, but over time it had become clear that things were not the same. First, the sex had disappeared. She wasn’t particularly into sex. It was something she did more because it was expected than because she felt any real desire. She did like the feeling of closeness, of being cuddled in James’ arms, his tall, lean body honed by devoted tennis playing, covering hers. He’d always been the one to initiate sex and he had often in the first two years. Even though the ebb and flow pattern of his erections had not changed, and he was still more tense than relaxed, he always reached climax and per conventional wisdom, his pleasure was paramount. Now, he seemed almost uninterested in it. They still cuddled before bed but instead of waking up tangled up in each other as before, she now found herself on her side of the bed and he on his.
She had hired someone to follow him around for a week. It had been easy enough to arrange. There was an abundance of street urchins in Douala looking for a way to make a quick franc.
“Le monsieur ne fait rien d’hors du commun. Il va au travaille et aussi a la domicile son ami le métisse. Ils jouent au tennis ensemble, ou si non au jeux vidéo. Des fois ils fument le banga. Il n’y a jamais des femmes. Ils sont juste deux ami qui se marrent.” (The man does nothing out of the ordinary. He goes to work and to his friends house. They play tennis or video games. Sometimes they smoke pot. There are never any women. Just two guys having fun)
He young man had made his report with a shrug, his voice almost accusatory. As in: Your husband is not cheating on you, you silly woman. Can two guy friends not have some fun together without you nagging women suspecting them of chasing other women?
Something did not seemed right all the same. And as Lum sat watching James read the newspaper, that morning, she knew it in her bones, that somewhere along the line she had lost him. Whether to work, or to goodness knows what, he was no longer the James she had married.
“James!” She said again, forcefully, raising her voice.
“Hmmmm?!!” He looked up at her. Something in his eyes made her pause. He looked panicked. James was always calm, cool and collected. James always knew the answer. James was the one people who panicked looked to for comfort and reassurance. Never in her life had she seem him panicked. He did not look panicked in a way that suggested that her sharp tone had startled him and he thought something was wrong with her. His panic was directed inwards. It had nothing to do with her. She might not even exist to him right now.
“I asked if if you wanted more coffee.” She said gently.
He looked at her like he did not understand her for a moment then something like guilt flashed in his eyes.
“No…” his voice came out weird…strangled as though he was struggling with some great emotion. “I’m fine.” He looked at his watch and stood up from the table. “I have to go.” He picked up his cup of coffee. His cup of stone cold coffee, and took a swig from it. James hated cold coffee. “I’ll see you later. Me and Joel leave for the business trip to Abuja tonight. Don’t wait up.”
And just like that he was gone. Breakfast barely touched. Travel mug seating on the kitchen counter, coffee maker still gurgling with the hot coffee he normally would take with him to the office.
Lum leaned back in her chair, her brow furrowed in worry. What is going on?! Why is he acting like this? I wonder if Joel knows. Maybe I should talk to him.
Standing up, she began stacking the dishes, fuming a little at the wasted food. When she got to his side, her eyes fell on the newspaper James had been reading. Le Messager. It was still open to the page he had been on. Among the articles detailing government corruption, some scandal at PECTEN (probably what James had been reading, she thought to herself, he doesn’t usually read Le Messager) and neighborhood mischief one headline stood out.
“TOP 100 HOMOS IN CAMEROON”
Lum scanned the names. Celebrities and politicians mostly. A few well known business men. She scoffed, a wave of revulsion coursing through her as she thought about homosexual activity. What perverts! Fine as they are exposing them. Preying on people’s children and spreading disease indiscriminately. Let them catch all of them and lock them up in Kondengui for ever.