Joe sat at the Chippendale antique dining table given to them by his parents as a wedding gift. Scattered on the soiled table cloth was a collection of letters, some carelessly opened. He held in his hands the one that hurt the most. The words now memorized in his mind from reading several times: I will always love you, and every day I've thought about you since I left. The words of a stranger, a woman, not known to him, but to his wife. In another letter, other phrases jumped out at him, through his tear-filled eyes like; I miss you terribly or life without you has been empty and sad. I am so sorry it had to be this way. The letters were short and simple, a paragraph or two, poorly written with many misspelled words, no return address, and simply signed in a scribble that looked like Ifrah, which he knew to be a common name for Muslim women.
He had discovered Amira’s letters in a shoebox in her closet while trying to hide his gun in a safe place from his kids. He had sat for the last hour, at the dining table, reflecting on their life together and what might have gone wrong. The tears came intermittently without invitation. He ground his third cigarette into a tiny, full ashtray, and glanced over at the clock on the wall.
He remembered how they first met while shopping for a gift for his Mother on his lunch break. He found two china tea sets that he thought would be suitable but just couldn’t make up his mind. He looked around and spoke to the first woman he saw, a slim woman in a green coat.
“Excuse me, Miss. Could I get a female perspective from you?”
She spun around as if startled, first looking at him with surprise, then suspicion. As if realizing her place, looked down, and only looked up when he spoke again.
“I am buying a Mother’s day gift. Which would you choose?”
He was struck by the beauty of her prominent forehead, high cheekbones, and long thin nose.
“Is her home decorated in a traditional style or more modern,” she asked in a hesitant voice with a slight African accent.
“I guess modern.”
“Does she have any china displayed in a glass cabinet?”
“No, it is in a regular kitchen cabinet”
“Then this is not the gift for your Mother,” she said with finality. “Does your mother cook?”
“Yes. She is a great cook.”
“I have an idea,” she said.
She politely gestured that he follow her in the direction of housewares, asking questions as they went such as what kind of food his mother liked to cook. He told her that being southern, soul food was her specialty, but due to some health challenges, she had started to eat a lot of vegetables.
“I think she will like this. I have one,” she said.
Before them mounted on a pedestal was a beautiful stainless steel wok. She beamed with satisfaction. Her smile volunteered within him agreement, and he nodded his head vigorously. He continued to play helpless and flirt with her. That encounter led to a date, and many other dates. He even introduced her to his parents who were concerned about her being a Muslim. A year later he popped the question on his parents' front porch. His Mother could not contain herself and cried profusely, stammering something about finally getting grandkids. They had grown fond of Amira despite their reservations about her heritage.
That was eighteen years ago. Iman was born a year later and then Jamal the following year. He always loved how practical she was, however their lovemaking had become routine and lessened to maybe twice a month. She was working and in school part-time, he was teaching fulltime and had a part-time job. Their conversations together were about work and the kids, and very little else. They both had lost interest, probably due to fatigue. Affection became a kiss on the cheek, an occasional hug, or a closed mouth peck on the lips when saying goodbye, but they were happy. It was all about the kids; preparing to send Iman off to college or weaning Jamal away from peer pressure at school by nagging him to pull his pants up and quit cussing.
Joe looked again at the letter in his hand. He had not been able to read past those words, afraid at what else it could reveal. He got up to get a beer from the refrigerator in the adjacent kitchen, slamming the door behind him, and sitting down heavily in the same chair that creaked in protest of his weight. He looked at the clock again.
Amira had no male friends. She had a lot of girlfriends, and until recently, used to run a book club from their home. He had grown accustomed to their feminist choices of books and had come to know Aziza, Ayanna, Syrad, and the militant Idil, whom he barely tolerated because she always tried to engage him in heated arguments about female genital mutilation, which he detested, but she seemed unconvinced and lumped him in the same category as if he were a Sunni Muslim. Later, Amira would laugh off his discomfort and say they had all become that way because of Oprah’s influence. She would then plant a light kiss on his cheek, rub his bald head playfully, and warily climb the stairs to bed in some old flannel pajamas that used to belong to him.
Joe had spent the last hour trying to figure out what to do. At first, he thought about divorce, but what about the kids, particularly at this time? That would be so unfair to them. Maybe a separation? Or he could ignore this and pretend that nothing happened. He knew that it would be impossible for him to do that. He hated her for putting him in this position.
It had to be the sex. Sex was good but never great, even when they were in love. He learned back then that great sex and a good marriage is not a package deal. You get one or the other. Sex was always great with Leona. That woman just knew how to please a man in bed. In some ways, she was like a man, non-emotional, and with no expectations.
He took another swig of the last beer remaining in the bottle, accompanied by a loud burp. His cell phone rang in the next room, but he ignored it. Sitting back down at the table in front of the evidence, he thought about the birth of Iman, their first child. He watched with pride when she first peeked into the world and was placed in Amira’s arms, still moist and smelling of after-birth. Watching Iman’s tiny fingers tightly clutch her mother's thumb afraid to open her eyes. She had beautiful olive skin, a big forehead, and good hair like her mother, but she had his generous full lips.
She embraced the tiny infant in the beginning, but soon complained of the sleepless nights, sore nipples, and loose skin on her belly. He reminded her that this was all part of motherhood, resenting having to take the place of Amira’s absent mother, who had been banned from her life by her father when she agreed to marry him. Her father already hated his daughter being educated and refusing to cover her head. The marriage was the excuse he needed to banish her from the family for good. Joe was humbled when Amira chose him anyway at such high a cost. He fell more deeply in love with her and professed to friends that in her he had found his soul mate.
Now all that was shattered. His wife is a lesbian. He found it hard to believe because Somalian women are just not that way. They are groomed to be subservient and loyal to men. He had to admit he was attracted to that. She was always polite and respectful, yet secretive. He always felt that from behind those dark eyes were hidden things she could never share, but he always thought it was cultural. Now he knew.
He went to the refrigerator and pulled out another Heineken, pried it open, threw back his head, and allowed the cold bitter liquid to slip down his throat, splattering on to his t-shirt. He lit another cigarette and paced back and forth from the sink to the dining table almost slipping on the little mat that was in front of the sink, sucking hard on the cigarette and flicking ashes onto the floor. His cell phone rang again but he still ignored it. Then the house phone rang on the kitchen wall. He pulled it off its hook, disconnecting the call, and left the receiver dangling, as it repeatedly hit the wall.
Joe had always prided himself on his respectful treatment of his wife. He said that he would never be like his father. He knew his parents stayed together out of necessity. His Dad worked at the Ford plant for the last twenty-five years. His mother was a housewife with too much time on her hands. He never understood the arguments they had over stupid stuff. His father could not stand it when his Mother grew aggravated and put her hands all up in his face to make a point when he had warned her not to do that. One night after a long day, he came home to no dinner, while his wife got ready to go to Bingo. She told him to order out. He said nothing and got a beer, then another. Joe was in his room doing his homework. The next thing he heard was his mother screaming. He heard a loud ‘thump’ as if she was thrown against the adjoining bedroom wall. Little Joe ran to their room to see his father straddled between his mother's legs as he punched her savagely.
His cell phone rang again. He looked up at the clock. Amira would walk through those doors anytime now. The sun had gone down unbeknownst to him. Light filtered in from the streetlamps outside through the cream Venetian blinds that cast eerie shadows along the kitchen linoleum and lower cabinets.
He waited for the key to turn, for her to throw down her coat, and shout the kid’s names and then his. He waited for her soft footsteps to make their way towards the kitchen, turning on the hallway lights and complaining why it was so dark in here. She stopped at the door. Her tall slender figure was statuesque in its frame. His grip tightened on the Heineken bottle that was now empty. He lifted it and struck. The green bottle hit the floor and shattered at his feet. He had smashed it in anger towards his wife. The image of his father beating his mother flashed in his mind. Her screams echoing in his head.
The aberrance of his actions shocked him back to reality. He looked again at the clock, surprised that she had not arrived yet. Suddenly, a beam of bright headlights swooped through the Venetian blinds and cut off. The car engine went dead. A door slammed, and hurried footsteps ran up the path, a key clumsily fidgeted with the lock.
“Joe, honey are you home?” Amira cried. “Joe, where are you I have been calling you,” she cried out again with unusual anguish in her voice. Her footsteps rushing through every room on that floor except the dining room. Then she appeared from the archway of the living room.
“Joe, why are you sitting here in the dark, didn’t you hear me calling you,” she said switching on a lamp on a side table.
“You bitch!” he shouted.
“What? Honey, what’s the matter? Are you drunk?”
“Who is she?” he stood up to his full six-foot frame.
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. You must think I’m a fool. Well, your secret is out.”
He suddenly moved towards her and grabbed both her arms pulling her to him, still screaming “who is she?” The smell of beer on his breath repulsed her. She struggled to free herself, and with all her might pulled herself away, but slipped falling to the ground onto broken glass. A shard of glass tore into stockinged flesh. She screamed in pain and rolled over to free herself. Joe grabbed the table to steady his slim frame from falling on top of her, as his boots slammed into more glass, crushing it into small pieces. Some of the letters fell to the floor amongst the glass. His wife screamed again as her hands tried to free a piece of glass that had sunk into her thigh. He saw blood and quickly kneeled to assist her.
“Get away from me,” she screamed
“Amira, you’re bleeding. Let me help you,” he said realizing what he had done.
“Stay away from me you bastard.”She said recoiling into a corner of the dining room, her eyes blazing like a trapped cat.
“Amira, let me help you.”
“Come near me you bastard and I will cut you.”
She had grabbed hold of the head of the Heineken bottle and menacingly pointed the sharp other end at him, clenched with bloody fingers. He sunk back shocked at this side of her. He looked at her cowering in the corner, eyes wide open and rabid with hate, her breathe panting swiftly. He slumped back into the same chair and began to sob quietly. She watched him unflinching bereft of pity but owning disgust.
“I guess we’re even now,” he said, wiping his face with his right hand.
She just looked at him with scorn. Her dark eyes receding to that haunted secret place that he was not welcomed at.
“I didn’t mean to do it with Leona, it just happened. I couldn’t help myself. All those late PTA meetings. Us not having sex on the regular. It just happened.”
He looked at her hoping for a response. But she remained camouflaged by the blank stare He couldn’t tell if what he’d said had registered. She just stared at him. They sat in silence for what seemed like an interminable amount of time, occasionally interrupted by the distant barking of a neighbor’s dog. Eventually, he looked over at his wife. She had brought both her knees together, her arms wrapped around them and her face turned to the side on top of them, like a schoolgirl, still in the sanctuary of her corner, with one of the letters open at her feet.
“How long have you been seeing ‘this’ Ifrah?” he asked softly. It was a while before he got a reply, her head still turned away from him.
“Ifrah is my mother. She begged me not to tell you about the letters.”
“Amira, I am so sorry. I didn’t know…”
“Now I know what you really are.” She said coldly.
“What do you mean?”
“I suspected that you were cheating. I saw the signs. But my mother persuaded me to look the other way like a good Muslim woman. How long have you been seeing her?”
“About six months. Amira, it is you I love. I promise it will never happen again.”
“You will never get that chance.” She said and
rested the side of her head on her knees.
The following months were difficult for Joe. Amira calmly went about her daily routines engaging him only when she had to. He knew it would take time to heal. They never talked about that night again. She focused her attention on the kids while he waited patiently for her to forgive him.