The box is full but Kene does not notice. It is not the tears that blur her sight. It is her thoughts, like the circular vortex of a whirlwind sucking her in, replaying last night’s events and propelling her hands to furiously turn each cloth into an irregular mass before dumping it atop the rising heap on the box. The deeper her thoughts sucked her in, the faster her hands folded the cloths as though her thoughts were in control of them, as though she might change her mind if she did not hurry.
Her phone rings jolting her back to the present, to the room. It is Kamsi. The special ring tone, K'naan’s Wavin Flag announces it. Instinctively, she steals a quick glance at the bedside clock. There is something strange about Kamsi who works as a teller in a bank calling at 8.30am Kene thinks. Her phones were usually switched off during working hours. Pulling the phone out from underneath the heap of cloths on the bed, Kene imagined for a second that perhaps as her twin, Kamsi had gotten a premonition of what she was about to do. In those few seconds between pulling out the phone, pressing the green button with her thumb and placing it against her ear, Kene decides not to lie to her sister this time, to tell her everything she had been hiding from her about her marriage.
“Guess what Kene, I think I am having an epiphany of sorts. Something I do not understand is happening to me” Kamsi speaks at an auctioneer’s speed drowning Kene’s “Hello” as if the words were revolting in her throat. Her high pitch tone, the excitement of it which contrasts sharply with the liters of bile Kene’s body organs are swimming in, jars Kene’s ears. She manages to stop herself from sighing in disgust.
“Are you okay Kamsi?” she asks as though she had not heard what her sister had said, her voice modulated to feign concern. “You are not at work?”
“I am on leave” Kamsi replies offhandedly a little shocked by her sisters’ rather cold response and eager to get on with liberating the words that crowded her tongue.
“Leave? I thought you said…”
“No, not that leave, not the main one sis. A casual leave. Took the day off more like.”
“Oh ok” Kene is relieved. They had agreed Kamsi would take her annual leave in August during which she was going to take their Mother to India for a long overdue Kidney treatment.
“So did you hear what I said earlier? I think I just might finally be in love” Kamsi says, the urgency and excitement creeping back into her voice. She dragged the word love making it come out as loowve.
Kene makes a sound in her throat that translated to “is that so?” while pushing away some cloths to make space for her to sit down at the edge of the bed. She does so gently, careful not to startle Chimuanya who is curled up in sleep at the center of the bed suckling furiously at her thumb. With her free left hand, Kene pulls the full box closer to the edge of the bed, just beside her legs. She intends to resume folding her cloths.
“Yes sis. I met this man. He is handsome, caring, gentle, very intelligent…He is just different. For the first time I feel very strongly about a man, can you imagine that?”
Kene is surprised to hear her twin sound this way. kamsi the independent woman. Kamsi who said love was a phantom emotion. She wants to ask her what suddenly happened to her love is for the weak mantra. She is the hard one, Kamsi, the adventurous one, the one who had firm control of her emotions. When at sixteen Kene got her first heart break by a boy in their class in secondary school, Kamsi had come to her bed at the dormitory where she was covered up in a duvet crying and had given her a tongue lashing that left her feeling such shame for being a weakling. Love Kamsi said love was an affliction she was never going to suffer from. When Kene got married, Kamsi thought she was insane, describing it as a big mistake, and the official end of Kene’s life. She was never going to get married, Kamsi, not after what their mother went through in the hands of their father. It was the fear of Kamsi’s I told you so taunt that had kept Kene from confiding in her sister all the while about the things that had been happening in her marriage.
“You are surprised right?” Kamsi continues like a teenager recounting the experience of a first date to her equally excited and eager friends. “Honestly me, I’m also surprised about everything too. Everything seems to be happening so fast. I don’t know. It’s just amazing, like I am out of control.”
“Who is this wonder guy?” Kene asks before transferring the phone to her other ear. “When did this start? Who…what is he like” She stutters as she speaks and hopes it is not too obvious that she is struggling to share the excitement.
“Ah, take it easy sis. You just asked like one million questions at the same time” Kamsi says laughing briefly as though Kene had cracked a joke. “Where do I start?
“Start from the beginning of course” Kene says a little loudly, hoping her voice had lost the drag, glancing across the bed to make sure Chimuanya was still soundly asleep.
“Okay, we met about three months ago at a colleague’s party.” Kamsi continues “Shebi that is also how you and Emeka met too right? Someone introduced us and we got talking. You know how it is now, when a guy meets a pretty single lady at a party. We danced a little and by the time the party was over he was as they always do, requesting that we meet up for a dinner date. What do I care? I told him yes. He was driving a Range for God’s sake. I mean sis, what is a girl gonna do? If he offers to spend it, chop it. So we met the next day and have been meeting and meeting and you know…”
As kamsi speaks Kene’s thoughts go back to the party where she met Emeka her husband. They had just finished their final year undergraduate exams and one of their course mates Ifunaya organized a party to celebrate the feat. Being the shy type, Kene had remained as usual on her seat for most of the evening, cheering as Kamsi and the other girls rocked the dance floor dancing azonto until a young man came over to sit beside her. It was his perfume which Kene would later learn was Pink Sapphire, mild but inviting that first caught her attention. It wasn’t hard to tell that he was not one of them, an undergraduate. The thick fabric of his shirt, the glistering chain of his wrist watch, the air of confidence that hung around him like a halo, gave that away in seconds. Also not much of a dancer, they had talked for the rest of the party sitting side by side, their laps touching. He was the kind who could talk on end, revealing so much of himself to her in a snap. She got to know he was an alumnus of the university. He worked at an Oil Servicing firm in Lagos. He was on campus to process his transcript for a planned Masters in the UK and had been dragged to the party by an old classmate of his currently a Post Graduate student who was friends with Ifunaya the organizer of the party. He was single.
“…I know I sound like I am insane right now Kene but it just feels, just feels like magic you know. I always thought this thing girls often said about being swept off their feet was some rubbish talk, now I know better sis…my world suddenly feels perfect.”
On a different day and under a different circumstance Kene would have been the happier of the two on hearing these words from Kamsi. She would have screamed and laughed and teased her reminding her of all her tough talk of how men were not worth more than the material needs they could meet and the sex, how ladies who were in love sounded so pathetic, so helpless. On a different day, she would have been enthused that her twin sister was a lady after all and that their mother could now ease her worries about her other daughter being possessed by some man repelling spirit as some prophet she consulted had claimed. Today however is not that day. Using her shoulder to hold the phone in place against her ears, she resumes folding the cloths and heaping them unto the box.
“Did I not tell you it will happen someday?” She says suppressing the sarcasm in her voice.
“I know you will start teasing me now” Kami says before giggling. “But honestly, It’s just amazing sis. See, I’m at his place right now. Not his place-place shaa. I am in his suite at The Sheraton. We spent the weekend together. Unbelievable fun. I was supposed to go to work from here but sis, I couldn’t get myself to, that was why I called in sick. Don’t even want to leave his presence at all.”
“You are in his suite? Kamsi? So he is there, hearing us?” Kene raises her voice slightly, a little alarmed.
“No now. He stepped out to get something. He’s not been gone five minutes and I’m already missing him, seriously.”
Kene knew that feeling. The kind that made her run away from home in Enugu to Lagos just to be with Emeka. The kind that made her redeploy from River State where she had been offered a space in an oil company to Lagos State for her National Youth Service just to be close to Emeka. When her father and his family were taking forever to reach an agreement on the requirements for the traditional marriage rites, it was that same feeling that drove her to call their bluff and follow Emeka to the registry in Ikoyi. It was a feeling Kamsi had teased her about on end. A feeling that has now known death. Listening to her sister, Kene remembered the events of the night before again.
Emeka had as usual come home late. The stench, a mixture of alcohol and kpakpa had hit Kene even before her hands could find the right keys to unlock the door to let him in. She was not sure what time it was as she had fallen asleep on the sofa after singing Chimunaya to sleep, waiting for him. It was their anniversary. That evening, she had cooked his favourite Nsala soup with the right kind of fresh fish, the type that didn’t have too many bones in it. The kind he loved. The dinner table was set, candle lights and all. The words she would say to him as she undid his tie before methodically ushering him to the table were all well memorised in her head. Just like in those early days when the flame was still aglow. It was her last ditch effort at salvaging their marriage, of doing what most women do; stooping just so they are not seen to have failed at being women.
“Kene are you there?” Kami asks, wondering why her sister is quiet.
“Yes dear, I am here”
“Okay. You know what? He said he wants to take me to meet his mum. I think he wants to propose. O my gosh, I am not sure but If he does, I am so saying yes. I have been having wedding nightmares of late you know. It’s scary. I mean, scary in a cool way. Suddenly I want to be a wife, a mother. Can you imagine that?”
Kene giggles then asks “What did you say his name is again?”
“Kunle. I call him Kay.”
“He is Yoruba?”
“Well not actually. His mother is, but his father is Igbo from our state. He has lived here all his life so he is basically Yoruba you know, has their name, speaks the language and likes their food. But he is not loud and razz like them shaa and he doesn’t have that H-factor thing that they normally have. His pronunciation is perfect.”
Kene is slightly amused and chuckles at the sort of details that mattered so much to Kamsi. Things like mother tongue interference and being loud. If those were the criteria for successful relationships she thought, she wouldn’t be there folding cloths and piling them onto the box, her eyes swollen, her ribs aching. Emeka’s spoken English was impeccable. When they first met, he seemed like someone obsessed with improving himself. He always had one of these how to books in hand, How to attract people to yourself, How to speak and get a standing ovation. After they got married, he included titles on parenting, on being the perfect Christian husband, on building an unbreakable marriage.
Alas the union began to crack barely months after they signed the dotted lines at the marriage registry. Initially the issues were seemingly benign. Flashes of temper, impatient angry retorts, and unnecessarily arguments. Kene didn’t complain to anyone about it. It was something to be expected in a marriage she had always heard women say. But when he began to keep late night and hit her, she called their mother and confided in her, hoping to get some reprieve. She shouldn’t have bothered.
“A woman is responsible for peace in her home” Her mother thundered on the phone making Kene shiver. “If your husband is staying outside, then it means there is something you are not doing right.” Their mother spoke to her in the tone she used when scolding them as teenage girls, that condescending tone that had driven Kamsi far away from her. So, she never called Mama to complain again. In a way, Kene could understand their mother’s reasoning. It was a fear of failure. Fears of seeing her daughter also fail. She and their father had divorced after twelve years and she had always lived in regret, blaming herself for giving up too soon, for not trying hard enough to save her marriage. She wasn’t ready to see Kene go down the same lane. Kene with age long images of a perfect home implanted like motifs on her conscience also did not want to fail. She wanted Chimunaya, her daughter to have that which was missing in her life, a Father. So she endured. She stayed.
“So you guys talk…as in do you guys flow? Does he make you laugh and all, you know what I mean?” Kene asks suspending the folding and transferring the phone to her left hand while using the right hand to stifle a yawn. She thinks she is doing well, asking the right questions, the sort of questions a girl in love loved to be asked, the type they loved to respond to.
“You bet. You know I don’t hang with dull guys now. But with Kay it is even way better. It is like we were made from the same material. Our thoughts synch so perfectly you will think we were twins or something. And he is also funny. Not funny as in like he is a comedian or something shaa, you know what I mean? Just like your Emeka, he knows how to crack me up real bad even when I am moody.”
Kene chuckles again, this time at the irony. If only Kamsi knew how long ago her marriage lost its laughter. Making conversation with Emeka was now a luxury. They no longer even slept in the same room. It was now over three months since she moved over to the guest room. She had done so in protest, hoping that it would inspire some mea culpa from him. The quarrel that led to it had arisen after he slapped and kicked her on the chest for asking him where he was coming from after he returned home past midnight one rainy night. Chimuanya had a fever and was diarrheic. Her stool smelt like spoilt egg and Kene thought she saw some blood in it. Everyone she called said it was the normal teething signs, that she should calm down. But Kene was scared and inconsolable. She needed her husband who wouldn’t pick his calls nor respond to her text messages. When he finally came home drenched and drunk, she lashed out at him in frustration. He responded with slaps and kicks, threatening to kill her. It took the intervention of their neighbour who heard Kene’s screams of help, to stop him. The next morning she moved into the guest room. He didn’t act like he noticed she was gone.
The day before, Kene decided to swallow whatever was left of her pride and make peace. Her ribs still hurt from his kicks but that morning of their anniversary, she made up her mind to forgive him and with it came some unusual excitement. It was like in the days just before their wedding, long before Chimuanya came. Then, it didn’t matter that he had just left home for work, they would chat on yahoo messenger, speak on phone during his lunch break and as soon as it was 5.00pm, she would rush to the kitchen to begin preparing dinner before he returned. Such was the love they once shared. The type that made people describe them as soul mates. It was in that state of excitement that she rushed off to the market to buy the special fish for the Nsala soup. She had hoped in her heart that the soup prepared for mothers who had just put to bed would in some way bring them a renewal, a new beginning. She sent him a text message to whet his appetite about dinner like she used to do and imagined him rushing home and wrapping her in his warm embrace at the door and saying he was sorry for everything. She missed the mildly offensive odour of perspiration on his shirts when they hugged. She longed to feel his hardness against her groin.
Kene wonders if she should now tell Kamsi how things turned out yesterday. How he did not reply the text message. How she didn’t let that dampen her spirit. How she had waited patiently for his return, roving from channel to channel on DSTV just to keep her eyes open. She wasn’t certain when they finally succumbed to sleep. They were however flickered back to life by two loud bangs on the door which made her jump.
With sleepy eyes and boot soles marching across her chest, she took a little more time to find the right keys to unlock the door. It was as she struggled with the bunch of keys, her senses coming to full consciousness that her nostrils picked up the smell of kpakpa. She could not mistake that smell. She had grown up with it. Most of the boys in Asata, the suburb of Enugu where their mother had moved to with she and Kamsi after the separation with their father, smoked it. They had a code name for it, vegetable. The police however called it cannabis.
It was the first time she was perceiving cannabis on him. She knew he smoked cigarette, a habit she had made him give up while they dated but which he resumed after they had their first quarrel just a month into their marriage. She did not realize he had had a bad day at work, when she attempted a joke on his return from work, telling him he looked like what the cat dragged in with his unkempt hair and roughly folded sleeves. That day, as their eyes met, his face reminded her of a cloud heavy with rain. He yelled at her, saying he had no time for silly jokes before roughly pushing her off his path, so hard that she struck down a flower vase on her way to the floor.
That was the first of his violent tendencies she ever witnessed, tendencies that soon became a norm. Now in retrospect, she wishes she did something firm about it that very first time, that she had shown him that she wouldn’t tolerate being treated that way. But she didn’t. Instead she cried like a child being rebuked for being naught, begging for mercy. When she dropped to her lowest, drained of tears and broken emotionally, he apologised, consoled her and they made love. He promised it will never happen again but she would find out days later when she found a pack of cigarette in his breast pocket, that he was not good with promises.
So the moment she perceived cannabis on him last night, she knew immediately that the symbolic candle the priest who wedded them had made them light together, the one he had prayed –with a loud acknowledging amen from the congregation- would never go out in their lives, was now smouldering. At that moment, she was no longer thinking of the planned hug, the Nsala soup that she had set out on the table for him and the fantasies of sleeping in his arms. She thought instead of her and Chimuanya standing on the track of an approaching speed train. Even before she could open the door, he had already lost his patience.
“How many years is it taking you to open this door woman?” he yelled before banging some more on the door. The loud bangs made Kene worried that Chimuanya would wake up. When the padlock finally flicked open, he stood at the doorway, dangling from side to side like a man about to fall under the anointing of a powerful pastor. Even in the darkness, he loomed large, this man she had fallen in love with, his usually square shoulders, drooped. She could see his eyes were red, like the red of blood. His shirt had a big irregular patch. He reeked of liquor. At that instance, Kene felt more of pity than any resentment. But it did not last.
“Welcome home darling” she managed, hoping her politeness will win her some from him.
“Since when did this nonsense start?” he yelled even louder.
“Please keep your voice down darling, the neighbours” Kene said, wishing he would just step into the house so she could lock up and avoid giving Mama Nonso their neighbor, a new gossip topic. The woman was such a busybody. She would come commiserating with her as though she cared whenever she and Emeka had a quarrel, consoling and encouraging her. She was much older and Kene had opened up to her like one would to a mother. But she was also the one who went about telling every ear on the estate that cared to listen, that Kene and her husband were wrestlers. Since Kene found out from her hair dresser that mama Nonso was such a gossip, Kene had become increasingly conscious of what the woman heard from their apartment.
“So it has to take you ages to open the door for me eh?” Emeka retorted even louder, nodding repeatedly as he spoke. His finger, the one pointed at Kene drawing semi circles in the space between them.
“But I didn’t waste time honey, I was only trying to find the right key” Kene’s voice came almost in a whisper. “Please come inside.”
He pushed her into the house, yelling how disrespectful she was and how she kept him outside for such a long time like her houseboy, in his own house. She was confused. Initially, she pleaded with him, but then she yelled back and then the slap came. And the kicks and the blows.
“Come Kene are you happy for me at all? “ Kamsi asks after waiting a while for her sister to say something, after noticing that there was something missing in her tone.
“Of course sis. I am happy for you” Kene replies raising her voice and rising from the bed. She walks towards the window and parts the curtain. It is dull outside like it would soon rain. “why do you ask?”
“I don’t know, you’ve been sounding somehow, like something is up. Is Chibaby Okay?” Kamsi sounds a little fuzzy.
Kene glances at her baby sleeping peacefully and wonders if she is really okay, if the events of last night had not stained her innocent memory. So aggressive was Emeka that even when she ran into the guest room and locked it, he came banging against the door like a dog raiding a chicken coop. He acted like he was insane. Not even the sound of his daughter awake and crying could calm him down. Kene cried as well holding her daughter. But it was not so much out of the pains that she cried. It was out of regret. Regret that she had ended that way, that she had been carried away by love, that she had not left the first time he hit her, that for no fault of hers, Chimuanya now shared in a sad fate. That was when something gave inside her. She knew at once that she will not take it anymore, that she was going to move out.
“Chimuanya is fine” She says. Not sure what else to say, she repeats, “Chi is fine.” Her eyes are welling up again. She sniffs as if to control a running nose.
“Are you okay Kene?” this time Kami’s voice is low, the concern in it piercing through Kene’s heart. That sniff has given her away she thinks.
“I am fine Kamsi” She says mustering every will to steady her voice, to remain strong. “So when am I meeting this Kunle guy?” She asks hoping to steer the discussion away from herself, to return to the subject of the call. But Kamsi will not be fooled. She persists.
“kedu ife na eme, tell me, what is the matter Kene?” she is no more pleading to know. She is being the stronger twin, demanding to know. Taking control.
The tears flow down Kene’s cheeks like they had been waiting for that moment to do so. The sniffs follow each other in torrents.
“Kamsi…I am getting a divorce.” she say in between sobs. “I am done.” It is like she just coughed up thick phlegm that had been obstructing her throat. Her heart pounds against her chest.
There is a brief lull before Kamsi speaks again.
“Kene dear. I honestly don’t understand what you are saying” There is urgency in her voice. A different kind of urgency “But Kay just got back. I must go now. Let me call you later please so we can talk.”
Kene is shocked. She wants to say something, to ask her twin sister if she had not heard what she just said. But her lips do not part. She let the phone slip down, crashing to the tiled. The whirlwind resumes.