Looking back, I realise that it was gratitude I felt more than anything else.
Gratitude for the stolen looks he had given me the first time I saw him at Leila’s wedding. Gratitude that a big man like him would notice me, the younger sister of the bride. The sister who hadn’t done well in A’level and was now forced to study for a Certificate in Catering instead of going to university.
I would have thought he’d have noticed Sheba, Leila’s best friend and maid of honour whose body-hugging outfits and flirtatious manner never failed to attract the attention of every red-blooded male within a mile of her. For some reason he seemed immune to her and, much to Sheba’s consternation, refused to dance with her and instead asked me to join him on the dance floor when a slow and smooth John Legend song was played.
I was grateful when he started showing up at my parents’ house with flowers for mum and Uganda Waragi for dad. Soon he was a fixture at the house and, as I walked him to his car, would always surprise me with a gift; an expensive perfume, shiny earrings, and even a smart phone. I was over the moon and I had every reason to be. Mum was already whispering to the neighbours that I was going to marry a big city lawyer, a feat no girl from our village could boast of. Not even Leila’s announcement, three months after the wedding, that she was pregnant and the prospect of them being grandparents for the first time, could take away from the attention my parents were lavishing on me. I saw Leila’s anger and the unfriendly looks Sheba & Co. gave me whenever I met them at the posh restaurants he took me to but none of it mattered. I fancied myself in love but now I see…I was simply grateful.
Grateful that he would propose to me although I did not have a degree like all the other pretty girls. Although I was not as wild or experienced like most of the girls at campus. Although he could have his pick of any of the girls out there.
“Maria Petronella Twinomugisha, do you take this man, Edwin Tuhairwe, to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, til death do you part?” Pastor John asked.
The day had come quicker than anyone could have hoped for – maybe not quick enough for mum, though. Still, it arrived and he had bought me a dress from Dubai. I remember feeling like a queen in that dress and the smiles on my parent’s faces put a glow on the inside of me. I had made them proud and I was more than grateful to him for choosing me, honouring me in a way that my parents would remember forever.
Yes. I am sure of it now. When I close my eyes and remember that sunny day in January. The music. My imported dress. My handsome lawyer husband. Behind my smile and in my heart, all I felt was gratitude to this man who had plucked me out of obscurity and made me the Belle of the Ball.
We spent our first night as husband and wife in Sheraton hotel before flying to London for two weeks. What were my thoughts before that night? I had imagined there’d be soft music playing in the background as I came out of the bathroom wearing the lingerie my bestie, Sylvia, born-again but naughty, had given me at the bridal shower. He had agreed to my suggestion that we wait since I was a virgin and wanted to remain so until marriage. So when he practically pounced on me as soon as we entered the room, I put it down to him being deprived all these months while he waited for this night. What of the fact that it hurt so much I had to fight back the tears and that when he finished he just turned away from me and passed out? He didn’t mean it. That’s what I told myself as I took a shower, letting my tears mix with the water. His friends gave him too much to drink and he was just tired. It would be better in London. The thought of flying abroad for the first time made me smile and I went to join him in bed feeling optimistic and happy. I was Mrs. Tuhairwe and was going to be so for life! Everybody envied me! What more could a girl ask for?
It was his friends. Yes. They were the problem. His friends were a bad influence and he did not want them to influence me that was why he left me in the hotel room in Knightsbridge while he spent each night of our two week stay in the clubs. He was always drunk when he returned and each night was a duplicate of our first night together in Sheraton. But that would change. I was sure of it. Once we got home to the lovely house he had built in Muyenga and we started our lives together, he would settle down and be the wonderful husband I always dreamt he would be.
It’s hard to tell when this became my life. Nobody told me that when I left my name behind at that altar, I also left myself there. The girl I used to be, carefree and hopeful, trusting that I could make something of myself even with my Certificate seems so dim and far away, like looking at a faded photograph. In her place is Mrs. Tuhairwe, cool under pressure, immaculately dressed and always wearing a smile, not a hair out of place. I had the whole ‘perfect housewife’ thing down to a T. Never mind that I had never spent a full night with my husband since we got married and that sometimes I never heard from him for five or more days. His phones would be off and his friends would tell me not to worry, that he was probably holed up in some hotel sleeping off the hangover. Never mind that I had become one of those women I despised, the ones who went through their man’s phone while he was in the shower, looking for clues to his secret life. I had even managed to get an old friend from school to teach me how to get into a password protected phone. Brains were probably the only remnant of the girl I used to be. Someone once said that if you go looking for dirt in your man’s phone, you’ll probably find it. And I did.
It was important for me to make a decision. I couldn’t go back to my parent’s house. All they saw were the houses, cars and the extra cash that came their way as I helped with the farm and other household expenses. Even after the rumours of the side-chick being pregnant surfaced, I made the decision to stay and fight. I wanted my marriage to work but maybe I was also afraid of what people would say if it failed. I was already a failure and my man was the only badge of success in my life. Besides, I was still pretty, right? I could win him back. So I summoned Sylvia who came with a fresh collection of lingere. My plan was simple: a baby. He would be stinking of booze and cheap perfume but I could do it! I was a trooper!
Six weeks later I decided to bake a cake to tell him the news. The doctor had confirmed that I was pregnant! That was the night I realised that things would never get better. He came home late. I heard voices downstairs and when I came to look he was on the couch with some unknown woman. Again, in the back of my head, I realised I had become those women that I used to despise, the ones who fight over men. I found myself pulling at his shirt, trying to get him off her as she laughed drunkenly and said, “Oh, is that her? The wife? Don’t worry, babe, you are about to upgrade!”
The first blow made my ears ring. The second made me see stars, something I thought only happened in cartoons. Then he kicked my stomach and I couldn’t even scream anything coherent because my mouth was full of blood. Then I passed out.
I woke up in the hospital. From what I could gather from the nurses, he had taken me there in the morning on the way to work and said I’d ‘fallen down the stairs’. I grabbed the nurses hand and put it on my stomach, my eyes speaking the question my mouth couldn’t, “My baby? How is my baby?” She looked away and told me to wait for the doctor.
His phones were off so I had to call Sylvia to pay the bill and to take me home. She couldn’t get a word out of me. The tears flowed uncontrollably until I passed out. My husband did not come home that week. On Sunday Sylvia suggested we go to church. The swelling on my face had gone down and I had run out of tears.
“Never be afraid to start afresh,” the Pastor was saying.
I could see the side looks that Sylvia was giving me. She hadn’t asked me anything but she wasn’t stupid.
“God is the Author of New Beginnings,” Pastor said, “Ask Him to give you the strength you need to forgive yourself for your mistakes, for the things you did out of ignorance, and believe that in His grace He is willing and able to give you another chance.”
I believed him. But what would people say?
Now, five years down the lane, I look at myself and see a stranger staring back. Hollow eyes, empty heart, lost dreams. This morning, at the doctor’s office, I received news that should have made me rejoice instead it made my heart sink. A baby. Another one. I had lost four already. Two to his fists and the others refused to enter this life of horrors I had built for myself. I think my body just squeezed them out of me to protect them.
I was crying in the car as I called Sylvia. She came to the house and listened as I said that I did not know what I was going to do.
“Maria, you know that that’s not true. You know exactly what to do! How many babies are you going to sacrifice at the altar of this sham marriage? I look at you and I don’t recognise you…you don’t recognise you! Are you going to lose another baby in order to save face? The Maria I knew was stronger than that,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks, “And I know she is still in there somewhere.”
It is strange, how easy it is to lose yourself. It happens slowly, like a drip-erosion of the soul. I realised then, as Sylvia and I hugged each other and cried, that reclaiming myself would never be easy. It would be as slow as losing myself had been but I had to pick up my gloves and get in the fight, not for a man who I know never loved me in the first place but for myself and my baby.
As Sylvia pulled out of the gate, all my things stuffed into her car, I saw a can of paint by the gate. He was having the exterior of the house repainted. He wanted it pure white.
“Can you stop for a minute,” I said to Sylvia.
She stopped the car and I got out. I picked up the paint and went to the front door. Three minutes later I got back into the car, a smile of satisfaction on my face.
“Amen!” Sylvia said. “Are you ready?”
“Yes, I am.”
As we drove away from the house, I looked at the smudges of paint on my hand and laughed out loud. I didn’t think he would come after me and, frankly, I didn’t want him to. I didn’t even think he’d notice I was gone until he wanted his punching bag to relieve his anger. Still, writing those words on the red front door that he had always loved made my heart swell with pride.
That was my truth. All I had to do now was live it.