Gepubliceerd in de Southpaw Journal
Ruth San A. Jong
(Translated from the Dutch by Scott Rollins)
I put my foot down harder on the accelerator to get to the church faster. It was five minutes to eight! Earlier this morning I had fobbed off my little daughter’s question with a nod about whether or not Daddy and I were going at it again. I didn’t feel like explaining our friction to my daughter.
“Did you use the powder?” I asked when we got out of the car. Her armpits had begun to smell but she was still too young to be using a deodorant stick. A feeling of guilt came over me when at five past eight I hurried to find a spot in one of the pews in the jam-packed church. The last bell had already rung. Through the wide-open wooden windows, I could see the priest in his feminine-looking robe and the altar boys walking along at the rear of the church. I spotted a free space for one person in the front row. The woman sitting at the end of the bench eyed me with reproach when I nodded with a pleading look to let us pass. I pushed my child ahead of me to get the spot. I put her on my lap.
They had already reached the entrance to the church. The organ began to play and the solemn shuffle towards the altar commenced. Little by little the fan blew away my hurry. My breathing became calm and steady. The service had begun.
I glanced back to see if I recognized anyone. It probably would have been better not to since I blocked the view of a man who was shorter than I. He slid over to one side to get a better view of the priest. I smiled with sympathy. No reaction.
I routinely made the sign of the cross and knelt on the wooden bench. My daughter stealthily wormed her way in between me and the black Creole lady with fake braids. The air blown by the fan reminded me it must certainly be Bergamot hair oil I could smell, mixed with strands that hadn’t been under the shower for very long. I shut my eyes. Then from behind my elbow I looked at my daughter who stood there silently asking what I wanted her to do. She automatically entwined her fingers in prayer, stood up straight and closed her eyes tight. I nodded that it was okay. She could remain standing. Her knees were too short for the high bench.
“Confession of guilt! Page 63!” whistled across the church hall. The church council and the priest had not been able to wheedle a new sound system out of the congregation during the collection. There were other priorities, such as spraying insecticide on the termites that threatened to eat the entire church. Apart from fearing God, I also feared the wooden ceiling would collapse on my head at any moment.
My thoughts turned back to an earlier conversation with Kennith.
“I have greatly sinned in word and deed.”
“What kind of idiot are you to go and say that? You know how I feel about it. I’ve had it up to here with that ‘eternal’ stuff. It’s the same old story every time.”
“You already know! You know! I won’t accept being taken over by that dear sister and mother of yours. Who is going to be saddled with taking care of your mother? Huh? Me, that’s who!”
“You know how hard things are for Aisa.”
“Your sister got herself into it, didn’t she? And now we have to get her out of a jam since we have good jobs, work our arses off and earn a good living? You always want me to do your dirty work.”
“It’s just for a year, Magda. Just one year. Just one!”
“Aisa doesn’t want to take any responsibility. She’s already spending all your mother’s money. Let Aisa take care of her.”
“Don’t talk like that about my sister!”
“Why not? I will say what I want! I’ll say it today. I don’t want your mother in my house. I don’t want all that hassle!”
“And now, your attention to the word of God.”
I was curious about what the priest would say in his sermon. It had been headline news in all the papers. The parishioners were all silent. I pricked my ears to hear whether he would actually mention it. This priest was known for his fulminations against the wrongdoings in this country. He remained anxiously silent, fidgeting around the pulpit. Of course not, I thought, he was nervous, with all those eyes fixed on his every move. I would be too. It was never pleasant to hear that a colleague had sexually abused a young child. Moreover, the bishop had given an extensive interview, and on behalf of the Pope had asked the entire world to pray for and trust every priest. The abuse hadn’t been all that bad in Suriname; it only involved one case that people knew about. The priest was made of flesh and blood. And confession was no longer taken. The confessional box was still kept polished with wood oil by the cleaning lady, who considered that little room a holy sacrament, but that was all.
This priest was a good man. You could feel it. I had never shaken hands with him as he was always surrounded by a horde of churchgoers. If I were him, I would be afraid of viruses. All those little kisses full of sweat and hepatitis.
It was a big disappointment to me, and to most of the other churchgoers that the priest had given his blessing without saying a word about the incident. He stared down at the floor more than usual during the gospel while his hands gesticulated in the air. The routine of the Sunday service and the docile congregation saved him.
Kneeling down with the tasteless wafer in my mouth, I asked God not to let my mother-in-law come to live in our house. I can’t do it, God! Can’t Kennith come up with another solution? God, please help me. I don’t want to, I really don’t want to. I’m not really a bad wife, am I, to want to choose for my family? I’ve already had to take so much from that family of Kennith’s because I have black skin and frizzy hair. And now they want to come and live in my house for a year! You do understand, don’t you God, that I really need your help? And God, will you please see to it that Lisa is a dear at school, because her teacher told me again, just last week, about her behaviour in class? She pulls other children’s hair and is extremely restless when she finishes her assignments. Ay mi gado, only you can help me. Amen.
I wondered if I had been able to ask God everything in the three minutes allotted. With a sigh, I wiped the sand off my knees and made another sign of the cross. I felt peaceful inside when I heard the feeble singing of the five elderly women who unevenly and loudly were trying to make the hymn sound like a hymn. During the service they announced that the choir had gone on retreat, and every parishioner had been asked to sing at the top of their lungs. The line of people reluctantly dissipated. Everyone sucked on their wafer. I was faint with hunger.
It had really annoyed me that Kennith had said we would consider looking after his mother in front of his sister Nellie. We! He always made decisions for me. His “sorry” only came after the fact, which I had to accept. There would be sweet talk, he would play cook for a couple of days. Then things would revert back to the usual pattern of laziness. He automatically assumed that as his wife I loved taking care of things.
I had never wanted to look after my parents. They had never made things easy for me. They died five years ago. To be honest, I was glad. My sisters Marie and Sarah had put them in the Huize Margriet nursing home before that.
“At a good age, 76,” I had told Kennith. “A good age for your mother to go to a nursing home.” I did make the effort to try and find a spot for her through a girlfriend of mine who was an executive secretary at Asiana. It wasn’t easy—all the nursing homes were packed and the cost was from 500 to 800 Suriname dollars a month.
I would have loved to have put my family on ebay—for free. When you are young you do everything in the name of sweet love, but there are limits. Now I wanted to enjoy my husband, our own life. I enjoyed the little time I could spend with my daughter, parting her hair in the middle with my comb, turning corkscrew curls and smelling the human fragrance of her young-girl body. I wanted to become a grandmother with Kennith. What’s wrong with that?
I wasn’t surprised to see, when I tossed my keys on the kitchen table, that it had been meticulously set. Miles Davis was playing in the background. Kennith knew exactly what I liked. He came up to me and touched my shoulder; I unconsciously pulled back. I walked over to the sink, lathered soap into my hands, washing the peace offering away.
I said, “Lisa, come on, wash your hands first, all right?”
I changed clothes in the bedroom. I knew the conversation would pick up where we’d left off, but I had already made up my mind. The service, which I could hardly remember, had steeled my resolve.
The carafe was filled with freshly squeezed juice. He had done his best. The slices of bread went into the toaster oven. He fried an egg with bacon. He took cheese out of the fridge. I followed his movements quietly and said nothing. Lisa sat dangling her legs under the table.
“How was the service?”
“Fine,” I mumbled, swallowing my food.
“I don’t know why you go to church,” he said, laughing. I smiled and didn’t look up. Get off my case, boy, I thought. I went to find some peace of mind and I found it.
“Did that priest say anything about those perverts?”
I didn’t look up, just shook my head, and asked him not to talk like that about the priests. He laughed that scornful laugh of his. You’d better watch it, otherwise you’re going to find what you’re looking for, I thought. I looked at him.
“It’s Sunday. I want some peace. If you wanted to know about the sermon you should have come with me.”
His tone changed. “Sunday! Today is Sunday? What do you mean by that?”
Here we go again: not that, I thought. “I don’t want to get started again. Not now.”
He slammed his fist on the table. I swallowed my last bite of food with difficulty. My nostrils flared. “I’ve taken enough shit from your family! Enough, do you hear me?” Lisa picked up her toast and quickly left the kitchen. She had instinctively learnt to get up and leave whenever Mom and Dad started shouting at each another.
I said, “I told you I didn’t want to talk about it. And now you start shouting at me? I’ve had it up to here. I’m the one who’s always compromising, being the good little wife who ends up having to take responsibility for everything in your family. Your sister lives alone, doesn’t she? Why can’t she take your mother? How long ago did you two cook this up and how come I only know about it now?”
“I don’t like having to repeat myself. She can’t!”
“Kennith, I’m trying my best to be a good mother and daughter-in-law, but you can’t expect this of me! You know we had to go through hell to get where we are today.”
I was always scathing with words. What I’d said, I’d meant. Or at least I thought I’d meant. I left him behind, sullen and angry in the kitchen, and locked myself in the bedroom to do what women do best.
I read in From On High, our church newspaper, that there were consultation hours with the priest on Thursdays. He lived in the wooden house next to the church. I spoke to the ladies at the administration office and found out that I could go there any Thursday at a quarter past five in the afternoon. When I heard the wooden floorboards creaking under my shoes, I asked myself whether I was doing the right thing by coming.
I smiled at the priest when he amiably but firmly shook my hand. It struck me that his hands were warm and soft. I took a seat. I looked around the room when he went to get a glass of water and saw the tell-tale traces of termites that had been wiped away. So this house too was blighted. No wonder, there were three large manja trees on the premises, so tall a gardener would not be able to climb them to prune the branches. Besides, no one dared tackle the removal of a termite nest.
I told the priest with some hesitation that I had left my husband five months earlier and had taken my daughter with me. He looked sincerely concerned and thought this was not a good thing. He said he’d never seen me in church, but I told him that I had not come to shake his hand. I told him that I regretted using harsh words with my husband. I didn’t want to look after his mother, but I did want to go back to him. The only problem was that Kennith and I never talked out our problems. In the meantime, my mother-in-law had moved in. Grandma was doing just fine, from what my daughter told me.
Kennith came to pick Lisa up on weekends. That gave me the extra time I needed to clean the little flat where we lived. We had rented a downstairs apartment on Bougainville Street. The flat had been arranged by my nephew who in turn had heard about it from friends. I had bought second-hand stuff. I didn’t need much. Our clothes, a five-kilo capacity washing machine, an iron, a small fridge and an electric hotplate were all I needed. All the things I’d had in the kitchen with Kennith had been too much anyway. Little by little I bought the things I needed and once a month went to the Combé Market to do the shopping. I had to get used to watching how I spent my money, even though Kennith gave me 500 SRD towards Lisa’s keep.
We were getting along a lot better. Lisa takes after me, you know. I think she is handling it all pretty well. Her teacher told me she had settled down. I still had my job at de Ware Tijd newspaper working in the financial administration department. Going back to Kennith would be hard. I didn’t see myself living with my mother-in-law. It sure must have made tongues wag in the family. I know, I’m a real bitch.
I was startled when I saw the sender’s address. Notary Public Zebeda. Had it come to this, after all? Had those seventeen years all been for nothing? Would I really end up being one of those many divorced women? Kennith was the first man I had been with, and the only one. We had bumped into each other at a party after graduating from high school and started living together. Lisa came years later, when I was thirty-five. He had always respected the choices I’d made—certainly when it came to the Catholic Church, and I had not forced him, except for getting married in the church—apart from that whole business with my in-laws, who never really did love me since I was too much of a black sheep in the family. They never called a spade a spade. I was always excluded, the last one to be consulted whenever a big decision had to be made.
How, you would have thought, could people think like that living in the twenty-first century?
All his other sisters had light-skinned husbands and they lived in the Netherlands, one of them in the United States. Kennith and his sister were the only ones living in Suriname. We never had enough money. I would have liked to have gone to Holland or to the United States, for a better life, but in the end we had been happy with our life here. We had rented a house together. He had a good job as a teller at the RBTT bank. Of course, we all have our little things, and you can live with that. But what really bothered me was his family’s criticism about everything we did. His mother’s meddlesome disapproval reached such proportions that I only attended the mandatory family get-togethers and funerals. A heated argument about whether or not we should pay a big fat bill sent by the photographer after our wedding had been the last straw. Sticking their big noses everywhere, anytime—when I got pregnant or at Lisa’s first Holy Communion. And Kennith had just accepted it and let it pass, sweet talking me.
“No span, girl, it’ll all be over tomorrow. You know I love you baby, don’t you?” That was it—he never said anything except when he had to make amends for his family. The only thing I did was withdraw, and bawl my eyes out. Everything became a dull routine, including the snide remarks of those beasts. And then they expected me to take that ornery woman into my home while his sister was living it up. I had never forgiven her and sure was bitter about the many times she had screwed up my life. But a divorce was the last thing I expected. That mother must have poisoned him with her backbiting talk. If you think that people mature, gain life experience and treat people better because of it, you’ve got it all wrong.
The priest looked at me the whole time I was talking. He said that the most crucial thing to do was keep on praying to God for help. A solution would certainly be forthcoming if Kennith and I were really meant to be together. I had to remain strong and sincere. I left that afternoon feeling satisfied. I had opened my heart, and even though it hadn’t brought my husband back to me, we would work on things together, the father had said. I was welcome to come by anytime I wanted to get something off my chest. The following Sunday I requested special attention be paid in the sermon to the theme of the restoration of a marriage. Nobody raised an eyebrow that Sunday since all the churchgoers already knew about my story.
I opened my eyes with a fright. Had she seen? I looked at my daughter curled up in foetal position on the sheets on the other single bed. My thumb automatically went into my mouth so I could bite the nail. My Lord! I’d dreamt I had done it with the priest and had been awakened by the sound of my own moaning. It had been scandalously delicious. I could have sworn I’d felt everything, every single movement in and out. What was this? I had never had a dream like this before. Not even about Kennith. I got out of bed to wash off the dream. My heart was still pounding with the sensation, my hard nipples protruding from my t-shirt as I looked in the mirror. The pleasing tingling sensation didn’t want to go away, even when I drenched myself with cold water. It felt just like a man had had his way with me. But why the Father?
At the office later that morning the dream would not leave me. My legs closed automatically when the uninvited thoughts arose. The memory was exasperating.
I had an appointment the next day for a talk with Kennith. We had now been apart for seven months. I told him that I didn’t want the divorce.
“I’m not going to kick my mother out of the house. Not now.”
“But I’ve already said I was sorry. How many times do I have to say it?” He had changed. He looked thin and had a cold look in his eyes. I had really hurt him.
“Do you really want to get a divorce, Kennith? Don’t you really still want to reconsider? I, I’m seeing the priest, I’m doing therapy with him and am learning to forgive myself.”
“You and that priest of yours! Before you know, everyone will be saying there’s something going on between you. My wife goes to see the Holy Father every Thursday. What for—to save a marriage that’s no longer there?’
“You know that I can’t do it, I’ve told you. I can’t take care of your mother. I have been honest about it, haven’t I?”
“So, am I supposed to get rid of my mother? My mother has always been there for me! What kind of a wife are you? Everyone’s been right about you all along, all these years! But don’t worry, everything’s just fine. Things couldn’t be better between me and my mother!”
I didn’t protested when he gave me the envelope with the divorce papers. I had to go to the notary public to sign them for approval. It turned into a series of appointments with the notary public that I kept on putting off. I could not live with the idea of being divorced from Kennith. We had shared so many good years together. We had a beautiful child who was the manifestation of our love. What was I going to do without him? Two people who were so finely attuned to one another, who knew each other’s every thought and move, couldn’t just get divorced like that, could they? I had to see the father to show him the papers. What a pity Kennith had never wanted to come with me for a talk with the priest.
With head bowed and slightly embarrassed, I went into the room and sat down. I broke into tears when the priest asked me how things had gone. Evidently this was the moment he had been waiting for, for this was the first time I had cried in front of him.
“But Mrs Groenberg, why are you crying?” Through my tears I could see his hand reaching towards me from behind his desk. A piece of the dream flashed past. I felt something stir in my belly. He came closer and put his arms on both my shoulders.
“Look at me Mrs Groenberg, don’t cry. It’s not like he’s dead. You never know whether this might not turn out to be a good thing. You know that you can trust in God, don’t you? You said so yourself. Look how well things are going between you and your daughter. If two people are not really meant for each other, you must resign yourself to it. You have to get on with your life. It might sound harsh, but that’s just the way it is.” Hearing those words just made me cry harder. He came closer and embraced me, rubbing my back with his right hand.
“It’ll be all right, it’ll be all right.” Before I realised what was going on, I felt my nose had pressed against his chest. I felt his warm muscles beneath his shirt. Something let go in my belly. I felt it. My skin began tingling, just like in my dream. I yanked myself free, rubbing my eyes. The priest looked perplexed at my reaction and was left standing there with open arms.
I’m not going to tell you, I thought to myself, when I had run off to the ladies’ room and wiped myself. I was disgusted with myself. Jesus! All this just because he had touched me? How could I be thinking of that while all the man was trying to do was comfort me? I wouldn’t be coming here anymore. Annoyed at myself, I pushed the button and flushed the big wads of paper down the toilet.
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