The couple stood facing each other in front of the church, the priest, and the whole world. It was the bride’s turn to repeat the vows after the clergyman.
“To have and to hold…” the bride, Uduak, said. Her voice quivered with unshed tears.
I sat with the rest of the bridal party and watched as she vowed her love and her life to him. It was real, she was marrying him. The surreal part was that I was sitting under God’s roof dressed in lavender like the rest of our mutual friends. I could feel veiled glances from people like sharp pin pricks all over my body. People were anticipating drama. It hurt that I was looked at as someone that was capable of providing cheap entertainment. I knew they’d never understand why I was present at a wedding even my family had begged me not to attend.
Anyone looking at my expertly made-up face saw calm and serenity, my favourite masks. I blended in. I smiled when it was called for and danced when songs were raised in the church. I didn’t do too much or too little. Any imbalance would have been noted and dissected later by eager gossips. I kept my eyes on the people standing before God. It was their day.
I remember the first day Uduak had told me about her fiancé.
“I have something to tell you,” She had said over the phone.
“Come over to my house then!” I responded.
“No. Let’s meet at Clara’s.”
Clara was a mutual friend. The three of us had been friends since university, but Clara had known all along that she was an outsider to the closeness that I and Uduak shared.
Clara was on the veranda of her house when I got there. She said hello with averted gaze. She stiffened when I patted her playfully on the back.
“Uduak is inside,” Clara muttered.
I found Uduak on Clara’s bed. Her eyes were hard and in full defence mode.
Air blew into the room through two open windows, but Uduak was sweating. Something was wrong. Whatever it was hadn’t just happened. There were signs before that fateful meeting. There were stiff hugs and half-faced smiles, things not before experienced in the sisterhood.
“Look, I want you to hear it from me,” Uduak said. She cracked her knuckles – her sure sign of nervousness despite the calm façade. “Why I bothered with the meeting thingy is because we are friends and you should know. However, I want to be clear that I owe you nothing. I did nothing wrong.”
My eyes stayed glued to her white wedding dress. She looked up at the groom lovingly. She was small as he was huge and ripped; beautiful contrast. There is something about Uduak, something about her small stature, her beautiful light skin and sensual timidity, which draws people to her. The aura of frailty makes people want to protect and love her. Was it why the groom had fallen for her?
“Till death do us part…” the groom repeated in his husky voice. The voice matched his size, and the determination behind the promise added more character to its smooth baritone. The blue suit fit like he was sewn into it – in a good way. I have never known him not to wear the hell out of his clothes. He was like that even when he had been a skinny twenty-three year old when we first met. I was fifteen and stricken that first day. He gave me a ride because he was going my way. If he noticed the adoring looks I sent him, he never acknowledged them.
He disappeared after the fateful ride. I was broken. I was a young and probably stupid, and in my naiveté, I surmised that we’d meet again…my belief in the Chinese red string of fate cemented my conviction. The legend of the red string has it that two people who are destined to be together are bound by an invisible, unbreakable thread that transcends time and space…
I was eighteen when I met him again in an eatery. He recognised me and smiled.
“You’re all grown up now!” he said. He had left the country the day after giving me a ride. He was home for Christmas because his mother missed him too much. He was glad to see me.
“You’ve filled up in all the right places. I bet all the boys are knocking down your door.”
I said there was no boy.
“They’re blind,” he concluded.
I felt like a woman under his appraising gaze. I preened; I wanted him to notice me. He did.
“You’re too young for me,” he said. “There are seven years between us, Mercy.”
“I know what I want,” I said. He sighed when he kissed me that first time. The rush of air testified that there were inhibitions on his part about our relationship. I had the best Christmas present when I was eighteen. I was given David to love and be loved back.
We wept for each other when he had to leave again.
“Don’t put your life on hold because of me,” he texted from the airport while I wept into my pillow. “You’re young, you should live.”
Before long the calls lost their frequency. If I got any in a fortnight I was thrilled. I called, he seldom answered. He was busy with his second degree programme in the UK. I met Clara and Uduak in our second year in the university and we clicked.
After the vows, the priest pronounced them husband and wife. I clapped with the rest of the wedding guests. Witnesses from both families were called to sign the marriage certificate. Uduak’s mother stood up from the seat directly in front of mine. Our eyes locked when she turned to adjust her wrapper. She looked away sharply and marched out to seal her daughter’s future.
Her mother liked me before the proposal. She used to think I was a good influence.
“Your friend forgets to use her head when dealing with men,” Uduak’s mother had complained to me. “Talk to her. You seem like a sensible girl.”
“You’re just saying that because you don’t have a man in your life,”Uduak mocked when I voiced her mother’s worries.
“First of all, I am telling you to calm your whoring ways because Mama sent me,” I said. “Also, I have a boyfriend. I have told you that before.”
“You mean the imaginary guy in London?”
I made sure David picked me up from school when he came home a year later. My friends met him and had their jaws on the floor. He shook their hands and we drove off. Sweet Jesus! Uduak texted as David took me home in his car.
“I bet he does all kinds of stuff to you,”Uduak said with a wink when I met her the next day.
“Actually, we do nothing…”
“Sister Mary,” she mocked. “I just want to let you know that the university will not issue a certificate of virginity should you graduate a virgin.”
I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed by what I had thought was my good virtue.
“Do you love him?” she asked.
“Then it’s no biggie if you do it. Only small-minded people will judge you for expressing your love.”
“Does it hurt much the first time?”
She smiled, “I have been an ashewo too long to remember what the first time was like.” We laughed at the truth she had said in jest. She wasn’t commercial with her love of sex though.
David was surprised when I let him take all my clothes off.
“I love you so much,” he whispered.
I met his parents after graduation. It was nothing official, but there was no mistaking the purposefulness of it. He merely invited me over when they were home.
“What kind of wedding do you want?” he asked. It had been a few years then and we had both grown in every aspect.
Most girls get a ring, I didn’t. I had the assurance of his love. I was no longer the dopey fifteen-year-old that had gone gooey- eyed over him. I was a twenty-five year old woman with questions.
“I know you love me, David, but I have noticed something. I love you passionately and it shows. I have never doubted your feeling towards me, but sometimes I feel like you are blasé about the whole thing.”
He wasn’t offended by the question as expected.
“I’m your first love,” he answered. “You aren’t my first, there lies the difference.”
My love for him consumed and blinded me. I wanted us to have the future I had always imagined.
Days, months, years slipped by and there was no mention of marriage again. I told myself that it didn’t matter as long as I had the key to the apartment he had rented when he moved back to the country. I was the only woman in his life. I held on. He was slipping but I had to hold fast. I, a proponent of letting go, was not taking my own advice.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he said one evening.
“Can’t do what?” I asked, cursing the tremor in my voice. I knew what it meant. The numbness began then. I woke up each day with loss of feeling, it started from my shattered heart and as each day progressed, it engulfed every part of me. Holding on to broken dreams is like gripping the blade of a knife; the harder the grip, the deeper the cut.
Three days after Uduak informed me of the relationship with David – which she swore started after we had broken up – Clara told me of the wedding. I didn’t react. The numbness had won.
I visited Uduak to congratulate her personally. Her mother didn’t respond when I greeted, but I went into the house anyway. Uduak was stressed out from preparing for the wedding and angry pimples on her face showed.
“Can I be in your bridal train?” I asked. She eyed me sceptically, “I only ordered for six bridesmaids’ dresses,” she said. “Sorry.”
“I’ll pay for mine.”
“Why do you want it so much?”
“To show you that I love you and support whatever makes you happy.”
“I don’t know…”
I gave her the acne cream in my handbag when I left. I was out of the door when I remembered that I had to get the seamstress’ phone number. When I went back inside for the information, I saw her mother throwing the acne cream through the window.
“Be careful with that girl,” her mother said.
“I’m not stupid, Ma.” Uduak replied.
David sent me a text message a few days to his wedding: “Thanks 4 ur understanding. They say if you love something, let it go…”
I wanted to send a reply telling him the only people who used the phrase were people who wanted to be let go of, and those who were deep in denial. I didn’t send it. I still couldn’t hurt him despite it all.
The couple marched out of the church followed by confetti and good wishes. He looked into her eyes and smiled lovingly. My heart melted like it had been left burning over an open flame. My body – the casing for my heart – remained calm and sunny. It occurred to me that I was scaring people with how calm I was.
Clara squeezed my hand as the whole church stood up to see the couple out.
“Karma…” Clara said reassuringly.
“Don’t cheapen Karma,” I said. “I bet the old dog has really despicable people to bite in the ass.”
I know you’re hurting, Mercy,” Clara said. “You’ll live and love again.”
Clara was appalled, “How can you be so cold?” She hissed. We were dancing out of the church.
“I can’t begrudge anyone love,” I said.
If what David felt for Uduak was what I had felt for him for more than ten years, then he deserved to know what the sweet, heady rush felt like. I had attended the wedding so I could set them free, so I could set me free.
I wondered why our paths had crossed so long ago. It felt like meeting David hadn’t really been for me, it had been so they could meet through me. I am love’s medium…the red string of fate.
After the wedding, after the stares from people who openly wondered at my motive, I retired to my bed, the custodian of my tears. I didn’t cry there either. The tears didn’t come. I suffered from emotional dehydration. I heaved my pain silently. I prayed for healing, I prayed for death.
Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Sam74100