I can’t breathe. Something sinister is lurking in the room, something terrifying. My eyes won’t open. My lungs won’t fill with air. My hands are pinned down. There’s a boulder on my ribs. There are hands around my neck, dry, rough hands gripping tighter and tighter. I can’t move. I. Can’t. Breathe.
I wake up gasping for air, my pajamas drenched in sweat and clinging to my back. Kagwe jerks awake, throwing the covers off. He sits up for a moment, the sleep leaving his head slowly. As I clutch my chest, catching my breath, he places his warm hand on my back and rubs it in small circles.
“It happened again?” he asks.
“Breathe. You’re okay. It’s just me here, no old hag. See?” He gestures towards the rest of our bedroom. “You’re okay. I’m here.”
The first time it happened, we were sleeping in a three-by-six feet bed in our tiny, South C bedsitter. He thought I’d had a nightmare and tried to hug me right away. I punched him in the chest so hard he fell off the bed – a knee-jerk reaction on my part. He hit his elbow on a protruding bolt on the side of the headboard. He still has a small, crescent scar to show for it. When I have calmed down, he holds me in a bear hug for a few minutes.
Now he knows to wait a while when I’m recovering from a spell of sleep paralysis before attempting to touch me. He knows what I am most afraid of and just what to say to make me feel better. His bloodshot eyes are heavy with sleep and I know he is tired from his overnight flight, but he gets up and helps me prepare for work. He makes me tea and puts honey on my toast. Then he checks the oil in my car and closes the gate behind me as I drive away.
This is what I’m thinking about when I pull up into the office parking lot. It is what I’m thinking about when I walk into Ben’s office and slide his cufflinks over to him. He looks at me all wounded, as if I just handed him his severed cojones on a silver platter, but he says nothing. He chooses instead, to continue twiddling his thumbs over some dog-eared papers on his desk. I am about to leave when he breaks the charged silence to ask whether I got home all right.
Now you ask. I resist the urge to roll my eyes. “Just fine.”
He starts to say something about making it up to me but I stand up.
“That won’t be necessary,” I say, squaring my shoulders.
“You seem to be in a bad mood today,” he says.
“Not at all. I’m in tiptop shape. In fact, I’m meeting a new client in fifteen minutes and I feel great about my pitch,” I say, walking towards the door now. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”
I’m feeling pretty badass when I get home that evening. I put my foot down with Ben, I closed a huge client for a yearlong digital campaign, and my house is Margaret-free. Kagwe is working nightshift so I can finally put my feet up, eat takeout ribs and catch up on Big Little Lies. In this episode, Celeste, a character played by Nicole Kidman, has gone back to see her couples therapist, alone this time. She is in what she describes as a ‘volatile’ relationship even though we (the viewers), have seen what a jealous, controlling, wife-choking freak he is. The therapist tells her to make a plan to take herself and her kids out of the situation. She tells her to start keeping a record of all the times her husband gets violent and to start talking to a friend. When people want to call a claim you are making into question, they always ask, “Did you ever tell anyone about it?”
I pause the episode and head to the laundry room. I rifle through the laundry basket until I find the offending half-sweater, the one from Thirsty Thursday that smelled of cherry. I clear my nostrils, empty my lungs and then take a long sniff of the sweater. I come out of it heady and confused. It has already mixed in with my own clothes so it smells of my scent. I am able to pick out Kagwe’s citrus cologne, sweat, that distinctive smell of worn clothes and a hint of cherry that comes and goes. I repeat this maybe seven, eight times. One time it’s there and the next I think I’m imagining it.
Perhaps this is what I ought to ask for, an explanation. I try to visualize how that would go. We’d be seated side by side, because apparently men are as evolved as wolves. You must not look them in the eye lest they feel targeted and their dominance threatened. It would be in the car, so that he had at least one thing he still felt in control of. The traffic would have to be free flowing because we don’t want road rage in this broth. Besides, he can’t walk away if he’s speeding down a highway. I would ask about the text, the one with the word ‘home’ in it.
He’d say, “What text?”
“I wasn’t asleep. I saw it come in.”
Still amenable at this point, he would unhook his phone from the in-dash receiver and say, “Here’s my phone. Show me.”
The house music he likes driving to would stop playing. In the white noise of wind swirling in through the slightly cracked open windows, I’d say, “I know it’s not there anymore. You know it’s not there anymore.”
He would weigh between rejecting the premise of my statement and getting on his high horse to confront me about going through his phone. Because he is a smart man, he would choose the former.
“I don’t even know the text you’re talking about.”
Pressing, I would say, “You deleted it.”
He would keep quiet, always with the silence. It would be over in five minutes and totally not worth my well-earned victory last Saturday. I don’t even consider bringing up the perfume because that would be trying to fly a helicopter tethered to the ground. It would crush and burn.
“Why does your sweater smell of cherry perfume?”
“This sweater, I’m holding it in my hand?” I’d wave it in his face. It would be a mistake of course, but I’d do it anyway because it ticks me off when he stalls so tactlessly.
“Cherry. Here. Smell it.”
He would take too long, sniffing here and there, examining it as if the perfume was a stain he could see. Three minutes later he’d say, “I don’t smell anything.”
My eyes would widen with incredulity. “Really? You don’t smell that?”
I’d throw my hands in the air. “What do you mean you don’t smell it? It’s right there, attacking your nostrils!”
He would frown and say, “Babe, why are you frustrating yourself?”
The whole room could be doused in cherry perfume and he’d deny smelling it so convincingly I’d start doubting my own senses.
Unless you want to be a case study in gaslighting, forget about the perfume. In fact, forget about deleted texts that you can’t prove were ever there to begin with. Ask for something reachable.
I start to think about that night last week when I couldn’t sleep. He was flying to Khartoum that morning. With a sweltering cockpit and a sand storm in the forecast, we knew it was going to be a taxing flight. He was straight out of a night rotation and being accustomed to staying awake at night, he hadn’t gotten enough sleep before the 11:00 AM flight. I spent half the morning in my office anxiously watching videos of haboobs on YouTube.
When I got home that evening, I broke out the fancy non-stick skillet and made a finger-licking pork dish. I even whipped up honey lemon sauce and garnished it with rosemary. He didn’t call when he landed, didn’t pick up when I called at 9:00 PM and again at 9:30 PM. An hour later, he dropped a text saying not to wait up so I packed the cold food into dishes and put it in the fridge. I went to bed with a glass of wine trying not to stew over the whole thing. Here I was thinking he’d come home exhausted and ready to crash and that my thoughtful meal would be the highlight of his day. Only to find out that he had the energy to hang till three in the morning and the gall to raid the fridge afterwards with no thank you, and no apologies.
An apology would’ve been nice, even the empty, insincere kind that men offer just to placate a woman and end the argument. Kagwe never apologizes. The words ‘I’m sorry’ are a thorny, foreign fruit that have no place on his lips. Our house could be on fire and Kagwe would let it burn if saying he was sorry was the password to the fire sprinklers.
I imagine that at an impressionable point in his childhood, he did something boneheaded. All children inevitably do. I can see him feeling broken up about it. He apologizes, his little face earnest and rueful. In my mind it is Margaret, (because with men it’s almost always about their mothers), who butchers the teachable moment by telling him that he was a bad child rather than tell him that he’d done a bad thing.
I imagine that she hammers this into him enough times that he eventually learns to associate apologies with his sense of self. Every time an apology is required of him, his mother’s voice comes alive in his head telling him he doesn’t do anything right. He wrestles with this attack on his person and his rebuttal is not apologizing. Ever. He learns that withholding an apology is as good as wielding a chemical bomb in emotional warfare and mistakenly believes this to be power.
Yes, an apology would definitely be nice, better than manipulation and stonewalling. The last time I tried to get an apology out of him he turned into a shard of ice so sharp and cold it cut and burned at the same time. Perhaps this time will be different.