There was a visible tremble in Monica’s hands as she scrolled through her Instagram page. The news was everywhere – wherever she turned, Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Telegram, everywhere – she couldn’t seem to escape it.
Out here with her two closest friends on a Saturday, it was all they could talk about, even though she wanted to yell at them to stop. She couldn’t. She mustn’t.
“…can you imagine what those children must be going through?” Angelica was saying, her lips hovering slightly over the straw sticking out of her pink strawberry daquiri mocktail.
Angelica worked with special needs children and considered herself the most empathetic of the group. She liked to think that she had the uncanny ability to see the world through a child’s eyes.
“You mean with their father being arrested for killing their mother? I don’t think they will ever remain the same again. They are probably damaged,” Eniola was the fatalist amongst them, the one who saw the worst in situations and in people. Pessimistic and logical. Sometimes it was exhausting being around her.
Monica remembered that time she had invited Hassan to Angelica’s twenty-ninth birthday party, it was the first time her friends were going to meet her boyfriend in person even though they had been dating for seven months already. Her decision to protect her relationship from the outside world had been a subconscious one, she didn’t realize she was doing it until Eniola pointed it out. The fact that she did not post any photos on public platforms, there were no mushy declarations of love on Twitter, on Valentine’s Day – just a quiet, matter-of-fact yet lavish dinner with Hassan. Their relationship had felt fragile, a butterfly in its cocoon that needed privacy to have a fighting chance because Monica had had her fair share of love and heartbreak and she was really hoping that things worked out with Hassan.
In this relationship, she was not the hopeless romantic she had been in others, naïve, excited, sharing more than usual. She did not put up pictures of Hassan anywhere, not even Whatsapp– the millions of selfies they had together (mostly ones she took of him while he slept because he didn’t like his photo being taken), she spent time flipping through them at night before she slept, tracing the outline of his face with her manicured fingers.
So, when she brought him to Angelica’s birthday party, she had hung back all night watching him and her friends, wanting to see what they thought of him. Another reason she had hung back instead of inserting herself in the middle of the party was because she was wearing a dress she really didn’t like, but Hassan had showed up that evening with the beige satin gown and told her sweetly that he had got her something to wear to the party.
“Try it on,” he had insisted, shoving the shopping bag into her hand even as she was about to protest that she had already picked her outfit.
She had tried it on and hated it. The dress had a big bow at the back that made her feel like a wrapped gift underneath a Christmas tree. But when she had emerged, Hassan had clapped in delight.
“Fantastic!” he said and swirled her around.
“But…” she started.
“Not another word, ssshh.” He placed his forefinger across her lips and smiled at her in that way that often confused her. She wasn’t sure whether he was being playful or controlling.
She had worn it for him, but when she arrived at the party, it only took one look from Eniola to know that she looked as shitty as she felt in the dress.
“So, that’s the mysterious Hassan,” Eniola had cornered her outside as the party crowed on. Monica found parties exhausting – she could last a maximum of forty-five minutes at full speed but once the timing began to cross into hours, she found herself unable to take in the loud music or the brush of bodies as people danced. How did people keep up that energy?
Monica looked up at her (for Eniola was five foot eight) and asked warily. “What do you think?”
It didn’t make sense to Monica how she sometimes hated Eniola’s ability to say things as they were but still craved those moments of lucidity. Eniola was like a pair of glasses that made everything blurry, clearer.
“Hm,” Eniola cocked her head to one side, staring at the paper plate that held small chops in her hand.
“Don’t hm me. I know you have a lot to say so just say it.”
“He’s okay, I guess. I mean, he is good-looking. And charming. Maybe overly so.”
Monica could feel herself getting offended. “What do you mean by that?”
“It just seems like he is trying too hard. Pretending.”
“And of course, you would know.” Monica huffed.
“Look, you asked what I think. I’m just telling you.”
“Why can’t you ever see the good in anyone? Why can’t you be happy for me?” Monica hated how whiny she sounded; like a child whose favorite toy had been taken away.
Eniola gave a scoff, “I’m not having this conversation with you, Monica.”
As Monica sat at the table with her friends, she couldn’t help thinking about that conversation that happened over eight months ago and about how right Eniola had been. Hassan was charming, yes. But he was also volatile and needed help managing his emotions.
She hadn’t told any of her friends what her relationship with Hassan was like, how could she? She was currently the only one among them who was in a stable relationship. She was thirty- one and had been dating Hassan for one year and three months. He had asked her to marry him two months ago in a private ceremony by the beach, her eyes had bulged at the size of the diamond ring he had presented to her. There was a flutter in her chest, a ceasing of breath, symptoms that mimicked a panic attack and for a moment she had been unable to speak. Hassan had taken it to mean that she was excited and speechless, he had slipped the ring on her finger while she looked on, helpless.
“Say yes,” he cajoled, still holding her third finger.
She opened her mouth but no sound came out.
“I…said…say…yes,” his eyes looked cold, but there was a smile on his lips. It was like his eyes and lips were two puzzle pieces that didn’t fit.
“Yes,” she whispered, because her finger hurt the way he held it and she wanted the pain to stop.
“That’s my girl,” and there was the switch. His features matched again, his eyes were soft and loving, and the smile on his lips was warm. ‘You know I love you, right? I don’t know what I would do without you.”
And she believed him. Hassan loved her. He was just damaged like she was and he had his own way of dealing with his pain. Who was she to judge?
“I love you too,” she replied.
“You’re quiet, Monica.” Angelica said, drawing her back to the present.
“Um…it’s just so sad,” she replied, her eyes darting away. She tucked her hands underneath the table so her friends would not see the trembling.
“I think it’s more than sad. It’s tragic. This man beats his wife to death, for God’s sake! Look, I keep saying I don’t know why people stay in abusive relationships. Like, what are you thinking!” Eniola threw her hands up in exasperation.
“Maybe its not that simple,” Monica said, in a quiet voice. “Maybe he really loved her and she thought he was going to change.”
“What? A leopard never changes its spots,” Eniola said.
“Maybe he can. Maybe she hoped he would. I mean, love changes people, right?” Monica heard the earnestness in her voice, she hoped her friends didn’t.
“Babe, once an abuser, always an abuser. I wish women will learn that whenever they see the first signs of abuse, they ought to run.”
“Well, not everyone can be like you, Eniola!” Monica retorted sharply. “You are decisive and assertive and brave…you know what you can take and what you can’t. Some women, they just…they don’t want to be alone so they choose their abusive partner over the alternative.”
Her friends were quiet, watching her with concern.
“Are…are you okay, Moni? Is there anything you want…to tell us?” Angelica asked softly.
Perhaps Monica would have answered because the kindness in Angelica’s voice broke something in her but it was Eniola’s next question that stopped her:
“Is Hassan abusing you?”
“What? No!” she replied quickly.
“Moni?” Angelica reached out and touched her arm.
“I just feel like women are less tolerant these days. Every little thing is labelled abuse. If a man just wants to…make you better…society calls him controlling and manipulative and abusive. But what if he genuinely is not?” Monica asked.
“You mean, we should go back to the days of our parents where our mothers took anything our fathers dished out like docile lambs?” Eniola’s sarcasm dripped.
“Eniola,” Angelica nudged, ever the peacemaker.
Monica stared at her friends, twisting the diamond engagement ring on her finger. She loved the feel of the ring on her finger, it reminded her that she belonged to someone, that she was not alone. If there was one thing Monica feared, it was being alone. All her life, she had felt alone. When her parents died in the car accident when she was eleven and she had been forced to move in with her uncle and his family, loneliness had engulfed her like a flame. It wasn’t until Bode, her cousin who was three years older had begun to take special interest in her, that she begun to feel like she was part of something, someone.
Bode was fifteen when she was twelve, and when he came for holidays from boarding school, he made sure to spend time with her, taking the loneliness away momentarily. Their time spent together in public soon evolved into something more private and personal, something that hovered on dangerous in Monica’s mind and yet something she needed. Being with Bode, her loneliness faded away and she let him do things to her that made her feel alive, made her feel good. And bad.
After Bode left for university, loneliness resumed its position in her life but her dream was always that when she was older, she would find a man that would make her feel like part of something. Years later, at thirty-one, she was on the cusp of that. Hassan may not be perfect but he was hers. They were a team, a unit. And yes, he had slapped her once…to be fair, she had provoked him and he had cried and begged her and then flooded her with apology gifts after.
One slap was not enough to classify someone as abusive; one slap didn’t mean he was going to beat her to death one day. She loved him and she had waited for him all her life.
“Let’s stop talking about this, please,” she said, plastering a smile on her face. “Who wants to see my wedding gown?”
She took out her phone, leaned towards Angelica and began to swipe. She ignored the feeling of Eniola’s eyes lingering on her.
It was too late anyway, with the news she had gotten from the doctor earlier this week, there was no way she was leaving Hassan. Not when they were about to start a family.