They were the sort of parents who thought that all being a boy required were good marks in school and a sensible choice of sport. Although his age was advanced (he would soon be thirteen) they still made him his sandwiches. His mother took a particular relish that I found perverse in buttering the bread for her son, in chiding him when he attempted (poorly I admit) to do it himself, suggesting in a voice far higher than seemed believable in a woman of that age, that he didn’t know how to butter his own toast. But she managed to make the suggestion with a hundred percent mirth. Nothing in her tone contained the sense of her having deprived him of anything other than another session of her excellent buttering.
He was not an unlovely boy (I’m not one to speculate on the potential handsomeness of young things but I somehow knew, once he grew into a man, while I would personally find him unattractive for reasons that are unimportant other women would flock to him); and yet I knew the disease such parenting caused. And one that had no cure, past a certain age. I’d met men who’d had such childhoods foisted upon them by over-zealous mothers and lazy fathers. Such men were often beautiful, beauty being that thing that excluded the necessity for any other really useful human quality, beauty like a hall pass, a get-out-of-jail-free card.
He played soccer well, he got the highest marks in his class. They kissed him at night after group prayers, they bargained with him about washing the dishes—they seldom won. I know such men, they grow up filled with themselves and not enough room, truly, for anyone else. But because a portion of falling in love is good for the ego they attempt it all the same and they make a mess of the hearts of unsuspecting women. They could do with more gentleness, less certainty as to their princely natures, less hubris.
The mother was frightful and so unbearable that I prayed my plans would sort themselves and I’d have the luxury of moving out, of turning down their hospitality, of leaving and never returning. She belonged to that group of women who hold tightly to their bosom the view that it is a female’s job to serve. Had she given birth to a girl she would have had a helper in the kitchen but, as it was, she had borne a son. Her job then was to dote on son and father, mine was to glower.
Maybe to say ‘frightful’ is unkind of me. Perhaps a lot of my mood, in those days, was coated by the colour of rejection and heartache. So maybe after all, she was a decent woman. She feared God, which is not something I share but have a healthy respect for in others. I can’t ignore that her taste in shoes was unimpeachable. If I ever had to choose, shoes would be my preferred deity. Her selection of boots, which I glimpsed when I walked past an open bedroom door, warmed her to me in such a way that nothing else, in the two weeks we shared a roof, managed to. Her talk was bland and there was too much of it. I could tell her husband was bored but he was unseemly to me and so I decided against entertaining him during my stay. I think he would have liked me to. Nothing outright makes me think this except frequent looks from him some seconds longer than propriety permits. Any excuse to say my name in every turn of conversation. Sylvia, would you pass the jug of water. So how are your plans going, Sylvia. Sylvia, well how are you, how was your day. Maybe I’m unnecessarily suspicious and you might laugh if you want but surely all those questions (and many I have not listed here because of space and time) could have been asked without the repetition of my name. It inserted an unwelcome dream in me that was not a match for my desires. His hot mouth at my ear and my name repeated many times as he pressed up from behind me and (my skirt conveniently hitched) moved his fingers, index and middle, inside my underwear in search of my clitoris. In my sleep I groaned but woke unhappy. This dream upset me.
His wife, who had her own name, well he never so much as called out to her once. Calling names, then, if done a certain way, is surely like touching. As if to say your lover’s name, even when paces apart, is to brush your lips against his and breathe his breath.
I eventually left the house, with great relief and a show of gratitude that was not authentic. Social graces called for this. And then soon after I was in my new apartment, my man called and said how wrong he was Sylvia and how much he missed me Sylvia and did I know he couldn’t take the picture of me from his mind. No, he corrected, not just an adoration of my body but he missed my being and he spoke like this for several minutes and convinced me of his honesty on the matter and that he really was sorry for hurting my feelings. He wanted me to move back in immediately, for us to resume our plans but I declined. He continued to call though and I quietly noted his devotion. After a little while I let him visit. Much later we finally married.
Funny, when next I saw the boy, a year or two had passed (he was fifteen I think), I liked him much more than the first time. The mother was totally agreeable to me and even the husband, although with a stomach more and more like an overfull sack of laundry, was charming. His glances were completely respectable, no longer or shorter than is expected between friends. And we, my husband and I, and this family that had paid me a kindness, we did become friends. We dined together. It was pleasant but for one horror—my name. The husband would not stop saying it. And, as if bound by duty, my wet dreaming continued.
- Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados and grew up in Nigeria, moving to South Africa with her family in 1992. Her debut novel Bom Boy, published in 2011, won the South African Literary Award for First-Time Published Author. Her most recent novel, The Woman Next Door, was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize and the University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing in English. It has also been longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. Omotoso lives in Johannesburg, where she writes and has her own architectural practice.
© Yewande Omotoso, 2017