Hi, mes amis. I’m so sorry I’ve been gone so long. I won’t even give any excuses, I’ll just throw myself at your mercy. And (again) I’m sorry about the length, I tried…
But I’ll tell you the truth, after I’d thanked him for helping me gather the files and make-up strewn around the parking lot I promptly forgot him. There was no reason not to. You see, I worked on the 20th floor as a junior partner, and from his jeans and tool belt I could immediately place him on the ground floor with the technical staff. I didn’t mingle with the help, it was that simple.
On the other hand, I say I met Didier on a sunny Friday afternoon. I’d just left the office and was walking back to my car, soaking in the beauty of the day, when out of the blue I heard a woman laugh. It was the most beautiful sound I’d heard in a while. It was the rich, throaty and sure laugh of a woman somehow combined with a school girl’s mischievous giggle. She laughed again and I stopped, sat on a culvert and just listened. This woman was happy, very happy. And the person making her laugh was undoubtedly the source of her happiness. I knew all that because there was a time, very long ago, when my mother laughed like that. I remembered being little and sitting in the living room, listening to her laugh as Daddy told us stories. Yes, she laughed like that once. Before Daddy came home from a trip one evening and ordered her out of the home she had spent 17 years building. She had nowhere to go but it didn’t matter, he needed the space for the new woman. Yes, my mother used to laugh like that once.
I shook off the memory, got up dusting my skirt and walked on, and as I turned the corner into the garage I found the couple with the laughter tucked away by the far wall. He was sitting astride a concrete bench and the laughing woman was sitting opposite him, their heads together probably sharing a personal joke. He smiled as he whispered words in her ear and she giggled. You could tell that at that moment they were the only people in their world and that their world was all they needed. Now, that was when I really saw the man I’d bumped into a few days back for the first time.
I probably stood there staring for a minute or more before they noticed my presence. I murmured a hello and walked past. Back in the car I sat and thought. I’d seen the man a few times since we’d bumped into each other on that Monday morning, but I’d always turned away before he had the chance to say hello because I didn’t need him getting familiar. But that was going to change, I wanted to laugh like that woman and if he could work that magic he was going to get familiar.
The next Monday I got to work on it. I had a presentation scheduled for the afternoon and would normally have called downstairs for a technician to set up the conference room, but that day I ventured into the abyss of the ground floor myself in search of the man from the garage. Luckily I found him chatting with a colleague outside the maintenance room and was spared the trouble of asking for him by description since I didn’t know his name or coming up with a believable reason for wanting him in particular.
On the elevator ride up I introduced myself and made a joke about bumping into him earlier. He shrugged it off and told me his name was Didier. Using his francophone accent and his strange name as a starting point I was able to find out he was Senegalese with a wife, presumably the lady I’d seen in the garage, and a five year old daughter called Fati. He smiled when he said her name, that sort of ticked me off.
I went with him to the conference room to show how I needed things set up and as we walked I noticed the novel folded up in his back pocket and saw my opening. “Hey, you like to read!” I gushed excitedly and said how I could tell the moment I heard him speak that he was well read and very intelligent. I told him about my own love for books that was so great I had a library in my office and in my home. In fact, I told him, he was more than welcome to stop over and borrow some any time, as long as he brought some of his in exchange. I knew I could win this one when he spent the rest of the hour excitedly telling me about his own plans to start a library.
When he was done we walked over to my office to see my book collection and since he had finished the book in his pocket we made our first exchange and that, ladies and gentlemen, was how we became friends. When he was done with that book he came back for another and another and after a while he didn’t just pick up the books and leave, he sat down to discuss plots and characters. He never really said anything to the effect but I could tell from his enthusiasm that this was probably the only forum he had to share his passion for books so it probably meant his wife, I’d learned her name was Mariama, wasn’t a big reader. Interesting. I was seeing opportunities everywhere. I tactfully did some probing to find out what his other passions were – cars and football – he made the job easier by going on to tell me that Mariama couldn’t understand his obsession with either. That night I was up till 3am reading everything I could find on football leagues and auto engines and the next time he was in my office we spent the better part of an hour arguing good naturedly about the quality of players on the transfer market.
Of course, we soon took our arguments and discussions to lunch and without really planning to we began spending all our lunches together. And it wasn’t just me, he had picked up on my interests as well, it was a pleasant surprise to realize one afternoon that we’d spent an entire lunch hour discussing fitness and fashion.
Things continued that way for weeks and we got to know each other a lot better but I was worried that our relationship might have plateaued. Didier was pleasant and friendly, but that was all he ever was. He never flirted no matter how much I encouraged it and he was always quick to laugh embarrassedly and excuse himself when I tried to stir the conversation in x-rated directions. I decided it was just too much trouble and was about ready to give up when I finally got some encouragement.
Here’s what happened. One afternoon we were talking in my office when Didier’s phone rang. He stepped out into the hallway to take it, but not before I heard the “Mariama, ca va?” I tried to get back to the work I’d been doing before he came in but somehow the fact that he was speaking to his wife on my time riled me up so badly that I decided to go out and see what was taking him so long. Stepping out I found him at the far end of the corridor. I was too far away to hear anything he was saying and I didn’t speak French, but from his pacing and choppy hand gestures I could tell there was trouble in paradise. I shut the door quietly and sat back down at my desk struggling to contain my glee. About 10 minutes later he returned, picked up his book and stormed out without a word. Well then, the game was back on, there was hope.
The next day at lunch and I made the discussion personal. I talked about my parents’ divorce and how badly it affected me as a quiet eight year old. I recalled the shouting matches over who would take me home for the week while I cringed in a corner just trying to disappear, thinking that if I wasn’t there they would have nothing to fight about. I talked about my engagement that had ended two months to the wedding because I had caught him cheating. Again. It wasn’t that I couldn’t forgive him, after all to err is human. It was really that I didn’t want to come back home one evening after 17 years and find my luggage at the door. I’m not as strong as my mum.
These weren’t things I liked to talk about, but if I was going to get Didier to open up to me I had to show him my own pain. After I’d talked for over half an hour I folded my memories neatly back into their recesses and gently urged Didier to talk about himself. He told me about his childhood in Senegal, in a town so small that everyone knew everyone else and the neighbors gathered to discuss it if you so much as sneezed. He talked about his parents and siblings and naturally the conversation gravitated to Mariama and how they’d met a few months before he’d won a visa lottery and left home. He had wanted to marry her before travelling so she could come with him but he couldn’t afford a marriage and a ticket at the time so he’d seen her parents, made his plans known and promised to come back to do the needful soon.
He paused. I could tell he was trying to decide whether to go on with the story so I sat quietly with my fingers mentally crossed hoping he would. He did.
A few weeks after he arrived here his carefully laid out plans went awry. Mariama called to tell him she was pregnant. She was frantic, she couldn’t live with the stigma of being an unwed mother in a town that small and nosy. So he did the only thing there was to do, he sent home all the money he’d travelled with (which he had originally planned to put towards an education) as her bride price. She moved in with his parents and Fati was born. On Fati’s first birthday a wealthy aunt had given Mariama a plane ticket and they had come over on visitors’ visas. It had been surreal, he said, to finally meet his child. The plan had been to use the chance to legalise their marriage so they could stay together as a family but somehow they ran into problems, her visa expired and hoping for a miracle of some sort she stayed back illegally. Now they learned that if she left the country in this state she’d be facing a 10 year ban from re-entry for visa violations and they couldn’t afford a lawyer good enough to make her legal. So she just stayed on.
But she couldn’t work and so as money got tighter paradise lost more of its charm and now they had begun to fight. When he got frustrated he snapped at her and being one to always give as good as she got she always answered back and before long they were in full-fledged battle mode. He said what hurt him most was that he knew she wasn’t a spiteful woman and it was just the situation that brought out the worst in them.
When he was done talking I sighed and said how much I admired African women who were as bold as Mariama, able to answer their men back. Me, I was still a little too steeped in the African tradition to even imagine doing that, I said. Didier looked up and smiled at me and I smiled back. Me – 1, Mariama – 0.
I watched him like a hawk after that and the next time I noticed him looking depressed I assumed there was war at home and invited him out for a drink after work. One drink became many and at a point he tried to leave but I told him I’d just been dumped and needed someone to comfort me. Five hours and many drinks later the bar tender who was a friend of mine poured us into a cab and sent us on our way. He had assumed we came together so he got us just one taxi and gave the driver my address. Feeling emboldened by the alcohol I traced a finger down Didier’s back and that was all it took. We were tearing at each other’s clothes before we hit the highway and were clinging to modesty by a thread by the time I unlocked my door. As we stumbled into the living room he began to slow down and I could tell that the alcohol hadn’t entirely washed away his conscience so I locked the door, got on my knees and took care of his conscience the best way I knew how.
I woke up terribly hung over the next morning. Alone. Apparently I hadn’t done as good a job as I thought I had. But I lived to fight another day.
Back at work he avoided me. We didn’t have lunch together, he didn’t borrow any books and his replies to my calls and messages were cool and polite. I was thankful that he was at least still taking my calls. Before that changed and before out of sight became out of mind I had to do something. So one afternoon I left work an hour early and went home, I lived just 5 minutes away. I spent the better part of the hour tidying the house and making sure it was fit for company and by about 5 minutes to 5pm I was done. I stepped out of the house, locked the door, stuck my hand into the mailbox slot as far as it would go and tossed my keys in. Then I sat down on the steps to make the “I know you really don’t want to hear from me now but I need your help” phone call. 10 minutes later Didier was at my door armed with his tool belt and I stood aside head contritely bowed as he broke my lock and let me in. Immediately he was done he turned to leave but I begged him to stay, saying I was too scared to stay alone in an apartment with no lock; would he hang around for a minute till a locksmith came around? He didn’t think it was a good idea, I could tell, but he also wasn’t the type of man to leave a woman in a dangerous situation. Decency won and he nodded OK. I offered him a seat and gave him a can of coke that he looked at suspiciously and then I went outside to call the locksmith. Back inside I thanked him profusely again, neglecting to mention that I’d asked the locksmith to come at 8.30pm.
I sat down on the bean bag opposite the sofa not saying anything else. I remembered a hunting instructor once telling me that sometimes you had to wait for the prey to come to you. About 10 minutes of awkward silence later the prey asked me how I’d been and I began to reel him in. I let him flounder about for a while, trying to explain why he had been avoiding me,
“It’s not that I don’t like you, it’s just… Mariama… she’s sacrificed so much for me, I can’t…”
“Shhhh, it’s ok”, I whispered, “I understand”. I was kneeling in front of him now, one hand on his knee and the other hushing him. I told him I didn’t want anything from him besides the opportunity to treat him like he deserved, he knew he needed someone who understood him and loved him just as he was. Someone he could talk to. I told him I would have preferred to have him all to myself and treat him like the king he was all day and every night, but I loved him too much to ask him go through a messy split so I would content myself with whatever little he could give. He obviously believed me because he pulled me closer and told me he missed me, then gently kissed my face, my lips, my neck… As he unbuttoned my blouse I couldn’t help thinking that this was the easy part.
Thus our relationship was born and as it grew I did some thinking. At the core Didier was a decent man and really didn’t want to lead two women on. I could see how hard he struggled. He was miserable with his wife and he saw that I could make him happy, but he had made a commitment to her and his child and I was beginning to see that if she ever found out about us and made him choose I would lose.
So I made sure Mariama never suspected I was in the picture. Every day before he left my apartment I inspected him thoroughly and erased all my traces. Every time I left his car I counted my jewellery and made sure I didn’t leave any behind. The second reason I went through all this trouble was because I knew that if she suspected Didier of a wondering eye Mariama would get her act together and step up her game. And I couldn’t have that.
Next, I encouraged him to talk about her so I could find out her most irksome faults and acquire the opposite virtues. For example, he complained about how she contradicted him in public sometimes, so if he said the sky was green when I was by his side I nodded sagely and rolled out statistics to prove it. Also, he hated unmade beds and from what I gathered she didn’t make them often. I could feel her pain, I hated making them too, but I skyped my mum and finally learned to make mitred edges and fluff pillows. And I never ever raised my voice to him.
I cooked for him and made him drinks, read to him and made love to him. I made him my king and my apartment became his castle. Soon my little flat became his haven and going home became a chore. And we had a piece of paradise for a while, but I didn’t want a piece, I wanted it all.
Last Friday I noticed he was more quiet than usual while we walked to the garage after work. By now I’d learned that that signaled a war brewing at home, there had been more of them recently. When his phone rang and he spoke in French I guessed it was my rival on the other end and moved to excuse myself, but he held my hand and asked me to stay. It was all I could do not to pump my fists when I heard the hardness in his voice on this end and her tears on the other end. He cut her off mid-sentence and ended the call. Burying his head in his hands, he leaned on the nearest car and mumbled a long sentence punctuated in swear words and ending in ‘cette femme’.
After letting him calm down for a minute I linked my arm with his and stirred him away from his car towards mine. He smiled for the first time that evening, probably because he knew I was taking us to our bar. When we got there I let him drink and talk, I sipped my drink and listened and stared into my drink. Maybe I was tired of listening to him complain about his miserable marriage every day, and watching him leave me every night. Or maybe it was the alcohol. But when the stream of lamentations had dried up I look up at him and gave him an ultimatum. It was going to be me or her and he was going to decide that night.
That seemed to sober him up quickly. He stood up abruptly and asked me to take him back to his car. I sobered up quickly too and cursed myself for rushing things, for pushing him. I said I was sorry, even begged, said it had been the alcohol talking but he wasn’t listening anymore, so I backed down and let him go. It was Friday night.
I didn’t hear from him all Saturday and he didn’t return my calls. I spent the day pacing, wondering how I could have been so stupid. You didn’t give a man an ultimatum after six months, you waited till you had weaned him from the other woman and he was totally dependent on you. What if he never came back now?
Then on Sunday afternoon I heard the knock on my door. Looking out the peep hole I recognized Didier’s leather jacket and somehow I knew what he’d come to say. I was taken aback by the trepidation I felt because after what had happened on Friday a small part of my mind had known for certain that this was going to happen. I opened the door slowly and we stared at each other for minutes before he spoke.
“I left her”, he said. “She has… she’s… gone. After what you said on Friday I knew you were right, we should be together, so I told her to leave. Took them to the airport yesterday. We can be together now, chérie.”
We can be together now. Those were the words I’d worked so hard to hear. The man I had set out to get was now all mine, no obstacles.
There was only one problem.
I didn’t want him anymore.
Was it because I couldn’t trust a man who would abandon his family for another woman? Or simply because I couldn’t imagine having to make the bed every morning for the rest of my life? “Go home, Didier”, I said as I turned round and shut my door. I still wanted to laugh, but not with him.
Photo credits: marianneclyde.com