The Morning After
Tracy Olabisi Coker
Dalanda and Mamadu considered themselves “modern Muslims.” Dalanda never wore a traditional hijab. Instead, she wrapped her head in fashionable head scarves or donned stylish hats. When it came to alcohol, they would indulge in a glass of wine every now and then, but they never, ever got drunk. Mamadu reached across the table now, brought her right hand to his face, brushed it against his cheek, and kissed it. He gazed deep into her eyes as if speaking to her soul. “Mon cheri, please, let’s not rehash this adoption business, okay?” The waiter approached with their dinner and placed their plates on the table on the outdoor terrace of the Radisson Blu, one of the most luxurious hotels in Freetown.
Dalanda stared at her husband and shook her head. She wanted to be angry with him, but she wilted like a flower beneath his sweltering gaze. Just look at him—sitting there strong and tall, his shoulders broad and square, his charcoal skin glistening, his teeth like white cowrie shells sparkling, dressed in his all white tunic and kufi skull cap, looking as elegant as a Paramount Chief. And whenever he peered at her so intensely with those deep set ebony eyes, glinting like black diamonds, mmm… even after almost twenty years of marriage, it still made her insides sing. “I’m just trying to explain how I feel, that’s all,” she said.
He kissed her hand again and continued to hold her eyes captive. “Yes, but mon cheri, how many times must we discuss it, enh?” His voice was calm. “I mean you’ve been talking about this for what – almost 15 years now?”
She pursed her shapely, brown lips and swallowed her frustrations. Mamadu’s unwillingness to budge on this matter polluted the air between them, like heavy smog that refused to dissipate. She turned her face away from him, letting her eyes sweep over the pool, resting them on the shadows reflected in the water’s glow. “Well, maybe it’s because it’s important to me,” she said softly.
He patted her hand. “Look at me please. I want your eyes, mon cheri.”
She breathed in the crispness of the cool evening air, and turned to face him again. “When I first brought up the topic of adoption all those years ago, I could understand why you didn’t want to do it then. We were young, and you still had a lot of hope that we would have our own child, but--”
He let go of her hand and crinkled his brows. “Hold on, so you didn’t have hope back then?” His voice was still low, still calm.
“Mamadu, we had been married for almost five years at that point, and it still hadn’t happened. So, when Mrs. Koroma came to tell me her daughter was pregnant, and couldn’t afford to keep the baby, I didn’t even have to think about it. I knew I wanted that child.”
He reached over and stroked her cheek. “Mon cheri, you have such a big heart. It’s easy for you to fall in love with children. But it’s not that way for me.”
Dalanda picked imaginary lint from the right sleeve of her silk blouse. Eh Allah! She wanted to shout, to tell him how unfair he was being, but she could never raise her voice to her husband. That was not how she was brought up. In her father’s house, women were beautiful objects, like the rich ivory pieces her dad used to collect; to be admired and adored; to be seen, not heard. Her father never solicited the opinions of her mother; and her mother, never offered her thoughts. She spoke only when spoken to, always softly, always with a smile, and usually through lowered lashes. She continued speaking quietly now. “Mamadu, we’ve been married almost 20 years. We have to be realistic. If I’m not able to conceive, then what’s wrong with adoption?”
In Sierra Leone, people only went to the doctor when they were sick. Preventive care was a luxury only few could afford. Dalanda and Mamadu were among those few, so early in their marriage, she went for a physical every year. And every year, the doctor reassured her she was in perfect health. Yet she still wasn’t pregnant by their tenth anniversary, so yes, she lost hope. How could he expect her not to?
“But mon cheri, no doctor has ever told you that you cannot have children.”
“Why haven’t I gotten pregnant after all these years then, enh?”
He reached for her hands again and squeezed them. “I wish I knew. But I do know that I can’t bond with children who aren’t my own. I’m not like you. I want my own flesh and blood. I’m sorry, mon cheri, but nothing else will do.”
She blinked back tears and swallowed his words, which, like shard pieces of glass, cut her up inside as she forced them down her throat. The last time she’d gone to the gynecologist, the doctor ran all manner of tests. And, just like all the times before, he’d told her there was absolutely no medical reason why she wasn’t able to conceive. Then he’d paused, removed his glasses and asked pointedly about Mamadu. “Mrs. Bah, has your husband seen a doctor to check his sperm count?” She was silent, embarrassed. She had wanted to ask him to get himself checked many times, but could never bring herself to do it. Her husband prided himself on being her provider. How could he face her if it turned out he wasn’t able to provide the one thing they both so strongly desired?
Mamadu changed the topic now to their businesses. He shared that both bakeries, the one on Circular Road and the one on Campbell street were surpassing sales goals. Then he explained that their new import/export business was starting to pick up, that’s why he had been traveling more often back and forth to Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. She smiled, admiring the beauty of his cleft chin as she watched the pace at which the curve of his thin lips moved. He was much more talkative than usual tonight, and he had merely picked at his grilled salmon, and had left his rice and mixed vegetables untouched. Then she glanced over at his wine, he was almost finished with his third glass of cabernet sauvignon.
Later, that evening, he took her by the hand and led her into their bedroom. He removed her head scarf and her braids fell to her shoulders. “Remember when we first met?” He caressed her cheek as he whispered into her eyes.
“Of course,” she replied. “How could I forget? You and those unruly Prince of Wales High School boys were staring at me, Fumi, and Jeneba like panting dogs with dangling tongues.”
He leaned in closer until their foreheads touched. He rubbed the tip of his nose against hers. Then he stroked her chin lightly and said “no, mon cheri, I can’t speak for Dudley and Henry and what their intentions were when they saw your friends. But I’ve told you many times, I knew immediately when I saw you that you would one day be my wife.” He brushed his lips against hers in a tender kiss.
Her breath quickened. “Swit mot!” That was what she called all that sweet, mushy talk that came out of his mouth--as if honey dripped continuously from his lips. But, as sappy as it was, she couldn’t resist his swit mot, and he knew it. “Tell me again how you knew you wanted to marry me?”
He kissed the spot behind her right ear. “You like hearing about how you captured my heart, don’t you?”
She rested her head on his chest and smiled. He smelled of Emporio Armani, the cologne she bought him last year for Eid al-fitr. She closed her eyes as she inhaled the aroma--a fusion of jasmine, rosemary and earthy herbal sage, sucking in the scent like oxygen. “Yes. Tell me again.”
“There was something in your eyes,” he whispered. “Remember, you didn’t say a word, you barely even looked at me at first. But when our eyes finally met, I saw kindness there, I saw warmth. Your eyes comforted me, mon cheri. I knew then you were the woman that Allah created for me.”
Cocooned in her husband’s arms, she exhaled as he nuzzled her neck and kissed her earlobe. That night his love oozed from his pores and seeped into hers. She remembered their wedding night. The first time they made love, when afterwards he’d kissed her stomach and dropped down on his knees to thank Allah that he’d been lucky enough to marry a woman who had remained pure until her wedding day. Then he’d prayed aloud to Allah to bless them with many beautiful children. He didn’t pray for his first born to be a son as she had expected, rather he prayed specifically for a daughter, who would be as beautiful as Dalanda.
The morning after their dinner at Radisson Blu, her husband greeted her in bed with sadness in his eyes. She snuggled closer to him and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Last night was so beautiful,” she whispered as she meshed her fingers into his.
He stroked her hair. His eyes still dull, still sorrowful.
What happened? What had changed literally overnight? Everything was perfect last night.
“Mon cheri, did you sleep well?” he asked softly.
She grinned and caressed his chest. “Mmmm….I slept like a baby.”
He kissed her forehead but said nothing.
“Mon cheri, I…I…have to tell you something, but please promise me that you will be strong.”
She pressed her palm over her heart. “What is it?” she whispered. “Is someone sick? Did someone die?”
He waved his hand in the air. “No. No one died, no one is sick.”
“Then what is it?” She was still whispering. “Is something wrong with one of the businesses? Did someone steal from us?”
“No, no, the businesses are fine, just fine.”
She sat up straight. “What is it then? You are frightening me.” Her voice was growing louder. “Please, just tell me. I can handle it.”
His hands trembled as he wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead.
She frowned. Her heart was pounding. She raised his head and saw that his eyes were filled with tears. “Mamadu, what is it? What is the matter with you!”
He grabbed her face with both hands and kissed her, a succession of short, tender kisses on her lips, her cheek, her nose, and her eyelids. “I love you so much, you know that don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
“Mon cheri, what I have to tell you is hard, very hard. But please promise me that you will be strong. I really need you to be strong.” He reached for her hands and held them in his.
A lump formed in her throat. She braced herself. Her husband had told her to be strong. Whatever it is, it is Allah’s will. “Inshalla,” she said silently. That’s what her mother always said when she received bad news.
“Please promise me you’ll be strong,” he repeated.
“Ok, I promise,” she whispered.
He cleared his throat and paused. Then he brought her hands to his lips and kissed them again. “Mon cheri, I am getting married today.”
She snatched her hands away from him. Her stomach lurched into her throat. Her body suddenly became weightless, as if in free-fall, as if she’d just stepped on quicksand--a solid foundation had given way to an abyss.
He reached over and held her up. “Mon cheri, please…”
She blinked and pulled away. Eh, Allah! Did she hear him correctly? Did he just say he was getting married? His parents and his brother were always talking to him about taking another wife. Three years ago, he had told her his brother had found someone for him. The man even had the audacity to bring the girl to their home to introduce her to Mamadu. “The nerve of him. Can you believe that?” he’d asked. Then when he had seen the look of uncertainly in her eyes, he’d said “don’t worry, mon cheri, you’re the only woman for me.” He had made her feel so secure, like it would never, ever happen.
For a moment, he bowed his head as if in prayer. Then he raised his face and reached for her again. He caressed her cheek with his thumb, and lifted her chin “mon cheri, please look at me.”
Dalanda opened her eyes but she couldn’t see. Her ears were ringing--the voice of the doctor who had asked her about Mamadu’s sperm count reverberated in her head. What if he was the one with the problem, enh? What if he was incapable of getting any woman pregnant? She wanted to hurl those words at him. To scream them at the top of her lungs, to slap him across the face with them; but they were trapped in her throat, so she just glared at him instead.
“I’m sorry, mon cheri, I’m so sorry.” He pleaded with her as if he wasn’t the one who had made the decision.
She wanted to believe that he had been forced to do this to her, to destroy her life this way, but she knew better. He didn’t do anything he didn’t want to do. She didn’t say a word. She simply got out of bed and reached for her robe.
He grabbed her hand. “Mon cheri, please talk to me. Please, let’s talk about this.”
What did they have to talk about? What does a wife say to her husband on the day he is marrying another woman? She wanted to ask him why he had made love to her the way he did last night. Why had he held her so close she could feel his heart beat? Why had he moaned like she was the only woman who could satisfy him?
“Please say something,” he begged again.
She continued glaring at him in astonishment. Who was this man? Was this the same man she married almost 20 years ago? She searched his eyes for clues, but found nothing! How long had he known this woman? How old was she? Did he love her? How many times had he made love to her? Did he look at her the way he looked at Dalanda? Did he ever call her mon cheri?
“Mon cheri, I…I have wanted to tell you for months, but every time I tried, I…just…” He scratched his head as he searched for words. “I just kept seeing the look of disappointment on your face, the way you look now….and I couldn’t bear it. You know how much I love you, don’t you? He gazed at her with bloodshot eyes. “This marriage doesn’t change that, mon cheri. Nothing can ever change that!”
His words replayed on a continuous loop in her mind. “I wanted to tell you for months.” Months? He had been involved with another woman for months and she never knew it. “I love you, nothing can ever change that.” The words rang hollow in her ears. How could he profess his love for her in one breath and tell her he was marrying another woman in the next breath?
Her lips quivered. She tried to swallow, but her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. She let out a muted scream and a silent cry. He tried to hold her again, but she recoiled. Suddenly, she gathered herself and stood up. She took a deep breath before she finally spoke. She only uttered one word, but when the sound came out, she hardly recognized her own voice. It was different. It wasn’t soft and low like her normal voice. It was strong and loud….very loud. “Congratulations!” She shouted at a pitch so intense, his mouth flew open. Then she slipped on her robe and stormed out of the bedroom.
Tracy Olabisi Coker: "I am a passionate Sierra Leonean American writer, who believes that the written word is art that can open minds and transform hearts. My poetry includes “Mama Salone” which pays homage to my home country, and “The Krio People of Sierra Leone” which is a history lesson to African Americans. My short story, “The Morning After,” is adapted from a chapter of my debut novel, White Yams. I live in Vienna, Virginia."