By Metu Osele
Part 1 — First Do No Harm
Ikenna stared longingly at his wife. It has been what now? Eight months. Not even a touch. He kicked his feet aimlessly in a failed attempt to release the tension welling between his legs.
Think of anything else. Anything but this.
“How is the current situation at the clinic?” he inquired across their 400-square-foot contemporary-styled living room. He knew that her answer could only be worse news than yesterday’s.
Although they were practicing social distancing and slept in separate rooms, they still afforded themselves the luxury of seeing each other once a day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had already announced that the virus could not be transmitted over 30 feet but strongly dissuaded sharing anyspace given that the virus could linger in air molecules for over 72 hours.
Ngozi let out a primal wail. It had been the worst day at the hospital. For eight dreary months, she had had to announce to lovers that they would be returning home alone, to parents that their kids were no more, and to children that they had just been orphaned. And today, her spirit was wrecked because her hospital had just lost ten of its frontline workers to the disease. This was the first day she ever considered quitting as a doctor. Although with no formal announcement to support, today’s tragedy had proven that frontlineworkers had a higher fatality rate for the lenovirus. The instantaneous death of her colleagues confirmed that an increased inoculating dose indeed led to a deadlier disease. Her husband’s question caused the internal turmoil of her day to pour out like a fiery storm. Her pain crippled her and buckled her knees as she fell to the floor.
During her drive home, thoughts of going home and never returning to the hospital burdened her. Her ride down Broadway was a sour reminder that the U.S. economy had been completely shut down. She played back the extremely hard decision she had to make at the hospital between saving a one-year-old baby, an 80-year-old woman, and another 40-year-old colleague with the last ventilator left in her ward. She quickly brushed this thought off because she still was not sure if she made the best call. First, do no harm. For an inexplicable reason, this phrase from the Hippocratic oath she had once proclaimed with pride at Tolu Odugbemi Hall at the University of Lagos came to mind.
“What about harm to doctors?” she retorted in a self-directed cross-examination. “What about harm to my family? What about harm to my mental health?” She was not sure at whom her anger was directed. She was livid and exhausted.
I am not a quitter. This is my life’s work, she concluded in defeat, turning up the radio volume to a distractinghip-hop tune.
Seeing his wife in a tumultuous state made Ikenna self-conscious about his earlier eroticism. As a nurse practitioner, he knew the terrors of working on a regular day, let alone during a pandemic. This was a virus unheard of in centuries, and the U.S. was clearly not braced for a war against this form of infection. Luckily, he thought, they had decided to hold off on children another year after moving to the United States from Canada. All their lives, they had been moving — Nigeria to Europe because that was the easiest visa they could get, Europe to Canada when they heard that Canada was easier to live in permanently, then to the United States when Ngozi was called to work as the Chief Epidemiologist for Mercy Hospital. The pay was irresistible. They had decided that they will finally settle in the United States to raise kids even though they often romanticized sending their kids to Nigeria to get a well-rounded upbringing.
“Achorom I machie ya nti owu na obido nzuzu (I want to slap him very well if he misbehaves),” Ngozi would often state as one of the reasons Nigeria sounded like a good option to raise a child. She believed that Americans were too lenient with their kids. Nonetheless, they knew in their hearts that moving again was not an option.
“Baby, talk to me.” Ikenna finally said. He still pronounced his words with a strong Igbo accent, Baybiiii. She loved it.
Ngozi’s mind raced back to the first time they met in front of Moremi’s Hall. He was escorting a friend who was dating her best friend at the time. Their conversation was short but deep. He was 6’2” with unbrushed hair. His smile was teasing, and his calm demeanor was inviting. She knew that that was not the last time she would be seeing him. She remembered finding it riveting that he was studying midwifery. Not a lot of men studied that. In fact, he was the first man she ever met that studied that. She could tell that he was not strung by his masculinity like most of the Igbo boys she knew. She thought he must be from a family that respected his decisions, or he was blatantly disobeying. Either way was attractive. Around that time, Nigeria had gotten the first few cases of the Ebola virus. She confided in him about her interest in volunteering with the The Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) to fight the disease, and she thought he would discourage her like every other person. But he cheered her on, stating that if his program would allow, he would have gone with her. She ended up not going because her parents would not sign the underage release form. But she knew that the moment she was out of her parents’ house, she will build a career on infectious disease. This is what led her to get an M.D./Ph.D. in epidemiology.
“Udo di,” she managed to finally sputter in response to Ikenna’s question.
It was always easier to talk about hard times in Igbo. English made it sound harsher, devoid of emotions,and less hopeful. As her mother tongue rolled out of her mouth, she felt the support of ancestors. Of kinsmen. Of her granddad who had lost his life in the Biafra war.
“Any deaths today?” Ikenna responded, immediately feeling stupid for asking.
She nodded, unable to explain the scene of a one-year-old baby dying while she stood there unable to administer any additional medical care.
Ikenna was unable to ask any more questions because he could see from his wife’s face that he was unraveling her. He chose to think of the day he met her. The day she told him she wanted to be at the frontline fighting Ebola. He married a warrior. At a time when everyone was running away from the disease, she was running toward it. He remembered telling her that he would have gone with her using his program as a cop-out, but he knew that was a lie. She made him want to be stronger. More fearless. But he never was. Not even now. He could not tell her that he quit his nursing career six months ago. He could not tell her that every day he stepped out of the house in scrubs, he walked right back in after she left and spent his day idling in the basement. She could not know that whenever he heard her drive into the compound, he ran to their designated meetup location poised as someone weary from a long day of work. He felt guilty for lying to her or for not being fearless enough to save lives or both. But this is not what he signed up for.
In fact, if there was any chance that she would listen to him, he would have made her quit too. There was no chance in hell she would. This is what she lived for and he knew it. He had known from the first day they met. He was always the weak one in the relationship. All his life, Ikenna had felt like he followed his wife with an air of insufficiency. He loved her, and she was his whole world. That is why he agreed to hop with her from country to country even though he was always okay with living in Nigeria. That is why he consented when she said a career as a nurse will be more rewarding for him in the United States. That is why he agreed to wait all these years to build a future before having children. He had always known without a doubt that she knew what was best for them, and he never felt a need to break free of her persistent chase for fulfillment until the virus hit. He believed her desire to continue working and savinglives was suicidal and although he knew she would accept his decision to quit, he did not want to disappoint her.
“Baby, do you think we should quit? No one will judge us. This thing is just very serious.”
“Nna I have thought about this in several ways, you know I can’t live with myself if I quit.”
“But why do you always …” he started to nag.
“We got this, baby. We will weather this storm as always,” he said instead.
Ngozi sighed and nodded. Now dry-eyed and soothed from her breakdown, she began to stand. She could not believe that he still thought she did not know who he was after 15 years of marriage. He did not know that she saw him come up from the basement every day or that she waited one minute at the door to give him time to get to his pretend position. He did not know that she knew every healthcare student was, in fact, qualified to volunteer with the NCDC during the Ebola crisis. He did not know that she saw him behind Sodeinde Hall giving all his tuition to the agberos—the gangbangers—that were disturbing her even though he lied about beating one of them up to ward them off. She could not believe that all their lives, he had kept up with the facade. For what? she asked herself, unable to find an answer. She also could not explain why she had always been okay with the lies. Maybe she wanted him to be the person he showed her that he was, so she accepted the lies until they began to feel true. She thought aboutconfronting him now, but she doubted his ego would survive years of the act that they were both accustomed to. “First do no harm,” she thought again and decided this meant allowing herself to believe that her husband stepped out with her every day to save lives. This was the only way she could save her marriage.
Part 2 — My Love Stays
I am not a weak man. No. I am Ikenna. The same blood that flowed through Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president, flows through me. I come from a lineage of leaders. Abum Agu (I am a tiger), buru Odum (I am a lion), burukwa Eze (I am a king).
Trauma causes a person to question their whole existence. This is when the question “why me?” is heavy in the heart and lips of the traumatized. This was the position that Ikenna was in the first time Ngozi hit him. It was a blow that ringed in his ears long after it had landed on his face. But it was not the impact that startled him. It was the person that hit him that shocked him. It was the way she looked at him, the way one looks at a trash bag that houses rotten fish. It was the way she walked away, unapologetically, as if she had just given him a kiss. And it was his reaction that scared him the most. He had stood immobile for a long time before he opened his mouth and cried like a hungry infant. It was not the intensity of the punch that moved him to tears. It was that he, an Agu, had been slapped by his wife, and that he had stood there and taken it like a punching bag unresistant to a boxer’s blows.
But couldn’t it all be explained? Ikenna’s musings continued. She was experiencing a lot of pressure, more than he could ever know. The fatigue of working as the chief epidemiologist in a hotspot zone of the lenovirus could turn a pet to a predator.
Moreover, he thought, maybe he should have waited till this blew over before he told her. Or maybe it could have remained a secret. One of those death-bed secrets dying partners reveal like “Oh, and by the way, I did not ever travel for business all those years. I was always in Costa Rica with a lover. But I love you. You are the only one on my life insurance policy” or “Oh, you know Chimeke is not your child. He is Ebuka’s, your best friend’s. Please take him to meet his real father.” This secret was, however, one Ikenna could not keep any longer.
As usual, they were across each other in the living room to talk about their respective days. If she had good news, a smile would begin to form on her face and then disappear as if to say there isn’t much to smile about in a pandemic but enough for that initial crack of a smile. If her eyes dropped to the floor, or began to aimlessly survey the rooms, he would know that today held grimly stories — like the one she told him about how she let a one-year-old child die because she could not possibly save him and her colleague at the same time. His, of course, were tell-tales. If he planned to tell her a positive story, he would deepen his voice, move his arms around like a Met Opera choir master, and intermittently cough to give himself enough time to make sure his story on how many lives were saved under his watch was rational. Otherwise, he would rub his fingers vigorously on his septum, sniffling like someone who has a cold, and concoct a story of a patient who had lost his life due to limited medical supplies. But today, when she asked about his day, he felt a strong persuasion forcing his lips to speak the truth.
“I quit,” he had responded quickly. “Today?” she asked.
“No, a while ago,” he said.
“And I think you should quit too,” he added right after.
“You know, I thought about it, and I think it is a suicide mission to be …” He continued to speak because he was now emboldened by his incipient act of honesty.
He did not notice when she walked towards him, breaking their 30-feet social distancing rule, before smacking him right in the middle of his face.
Knowing his wife for as long as he did, this was the last response he expected. Ngozi was the girl who would give all her food away to a hungry classmate back in the university. She was the girl that threw her self in front of a Molue bus to pull a kid out of the road. This act earned her the limp she still carried to this day.
In her room, Ngozi sat on her bed livid. How dare he? she thought. She felt not even the slightest remorse for her actions. In fact, she felt relieved, like she had just released years of sufferance. All her life, she had pulled this man around like a bag of cement. Even their marriage was by her own doing. After five years of courtship, Ikenna still did not have the balls to ask her to be his wife. Not until she gave him an ultimatum. She remembered how she had said to him: “If you do not ask me to marry you before the end of this year, consider yourself single.” The next week, he proposed. This was the same way she had to force him to come to the U.S. with her, and even the same way she forced him to change his career. The only thing left, she thought, is for me to force him to clean his own crap. Now, he has the audacity to try and impose his impotency on me.
“Tufiakwa,” she said out loud whilst raising her hands over her head and snapping her fingers in the way Nigerian Igbos do to reject something of bad omen.
She was not only angry that he quit or that he wanted her to quit too. She was angry that he took away the only thing that allowed her to tolerate him. At least, in pretense, it was easier for her to ignore the fact that her husband was a disappointment. As her anger heightened, an unexpected image appeared in her subconscious: Dr. Johnathan. Dr. Johnathan was an attending physician at their hospital. She had caught herself throwing glances of admiration towards him and sometimes, she had even caught herself flirting. She imagined what her life with a man like Dr. Johnathan would have been like. Both working hand in hand to contain this deathly virus. Both sharing dreams of the future of healthcare they desired. Both… She had to cut herself from the rabbit hole these thoughts were leading her to. She had chosen Ikenna and would have to stand by her choices.
One would think that the first time would be the last time, but there is something about the feeling of unburdening that is addictive. Take for example, the first time a depressed person takes opioids. Such a person may have convinced themselves that this was just a one-time thing – just to see what it feels like. But after that initial feeling of peace that the drug affords them, the soul yearns ceaselessly for that thing that took the pain away.
But Ikenna did not know this. He believed that Ngozi had only made a mistake the first time and never brought that altercation up again. Now that he had divulged his lies, he did not need to escape into the basement everyday like he had done in the past to pretend like he was at work. He began a ritual of sitting in the front of the garage after his daily walk to clear his mind. On this day, he was engrossed in a peculiar matter: the origin of his name. He thought about how his parents had given all his siblings names that meant something. His first sister, Adaku, was born around the time his father had amassed wealth from his textile business. Adaku means “daughter of wealth.” His brother Binyelum, meaning “stay with me,” was born after his mother had already suffered three miscarriages before his birth.
His, Ikenna, is a tragicomic story. His father was a serial beater and serial cheater. After years of suffering the abuse, his mother decided to leave but that was when she found out that she was pregnant with Ikenna and chose to stay. In the days of his mother, bearing a child outside of one’s matrimonial home was synonymous with prostitution.
Ikenna, meaning “father’s power”, was his father’s evil way of telling his mother that she could never leave him. Although the validity of this story was questionable, Ikenna truly believed that he was the reason his mother remained in an abusive marriage. He had heard this story from his older brother, Binyelum, when they were young. During a fight, Binyelum had told him that he was the reason why their mother suffered and went further to prove his accusation by explaining to Ikenna the origin of his name. This recollection drove him into a state of melancholy that was cut short by the presence of his wife driving toward their home.
Ikenna could not believe how beautiful his wife still was after all these years. Her skin still shined like perfectly polished wood. And except for the dark eyebags that hung beneath her eyes, her face was unblemished. She was tall, slender, and if she were not a doctor, he knew she could have been a successful model. Well, maybe not a runway model, he thought, not with her crooked gait.
“Have you given any thought to what we discussed?” he said when she drew closer.
Ngozi ignored him. She dusted her feet over the welcome home mat and proceeded to unlock the door.
He stood up and followed her.
“Am I not talking to you?” he asked. “See, you cannot keep endangering my life.” “If you do not quit, I will leave,” he added, shocked at his utterance.
“You will leave?” she said and began to laugh. She laughed so hard that she toppled over the side table that lay too close to the door.
When Ikenna saw that she was about to fall, he placed his hands on her arms to help her regain balance.
This touch set off a rage in her. With the force of a disturbed Africanized bee, she turned around and landed her palm right in the center of his face in a way that caused her fingers to end up in his eyes. She kicked him between his legs which caused him to let out a sound that resembled a lion’s mating call, recoil in pain, and then land on the floor. She knelt over him and continued to lay punches on him. Realizing that her punches were not inflicting the level of pain she desired him to feel, she ran toward the kitchen and returned with a ceramic saucepan. Just as Ikenna was beginning to stand, she hit the saucepan on his groin: an act that forced him to roll into a ball like an armadillo. His capitulation gave her room to continue to hit him repeatedly with the saucepan until she felt her rage dissipate. She spat on him, gave him one last kick, and walked into her room again like nothing had just happened.
Either from shock or from pain or both, Ikenna laid immobile on the floor throughout the evening and into the night. He was still there when she left for work in the morning and even though he heard the jingle of her keys as she walked away, he pretended to be asleep. That was the last time Ikenna would hear from his wife for a while.
Ikenna was in bed when he heard someone walk into his room. Like abusees commonly do, he had isolated himself, neither answering phone nor door. The only time he stood from his bed was to get food, and even that was rare. And the only time he left his house was to search for an apartment as he already decided that he would leave Ngozi. He could not see who had walked into his room because he was turned away from the door, but he smelled her and then felt her hands graze his bare back. She did this for a while, not saying anything, before she placed a kiss on the back of his head. She stood up, but before leaving, she said the first sentence he had heard from her in two weeks.
“Obim,” a term that means “my heart” in Igbo. “I am pregnant.”
Ikenna let these words lay on his mind for a while. Slowly and unexpectedly he felt the tightness of his chest begin to loosen. He felt joy slowly begin to melt the cloud of darkness that enveloped him. He began to imagine himself as a father. Someone whom he could love, and someone who could love him back. Someone whom he could spend his idle days with. Someone who would help him cope with the depression that had taken over his life. The prospects of being a father excited Ikenna so much so that heforgot the requirement for conception.
Five days before the expected delivery date, Ikenna and Ngozi arrived at the hospital. This was a new rule set in place because of the virus. All patients and whomever wished to be there with the patient had to be isolated and observed for at least five days.
Because of his wife’s pregnancy, and especially because she was diagnosed with preeclampsia, Ikenna decided not to move into the new apartment he had already paid a deposit for. Yet, they lived like strangers, and only spoke to each other in dire circumstances. This child made it bearable for him to spend five idle days together in isolation with this woman he hated so much. This child stopped him every time he wished upon her death.
Now in the delivery room, Ikenna stood beside his wife’s bed ready to give her every support she needed. As a former nurse himself, he knew that the curse God placed on Eve followed all her descendants and that the pain of childbearing was formidable. At the final push, he watched with joyful expectation as the doctor gently cradled and pulled the head of his son from his wife’s expanded vagina. At this point, he thought he felt a change in atmosphere in the room – the type of change he was used to when a doctor was about to announce bad news. This scared him, but he could see that his child looked fine. His fear was abated when his son, the one God had sent to give him joy, let out a loud sorrowful cry in the way newborn babies do to protest being taken from the tranquility of the womb. Yet, there was a strangeness in the room – a deadpan silence between the nurses that was unusual for a successful birth. Ikenna looked at his son and saw the tanned whiteness of his son’s skin, the bright blueness of his eyes, and the curly blondness of his hair.
It was only then that Ikenna accepted it. That was not his child.
Metu Osele is a graduate student in the UAMS Department of Biomedical Informatics. She is currently working on her debut novel which she hopes to publish in 2023. She writes short stories on her blog – creativewritingbymetu.com – and ghostwrites non-fiction and fiction publications.