In this Think-Like-A-Man world, this Fault-in-our-Stars universe, it embarrasses me to say that I am inept at love. Falling in love is something most people have to resist. Shaking off suitors should be as easy as wearing lipstick. I am still staggering in nine-inch heels when it comes to understanding how romance works.
I believe that my inefficiency at romance has something to do with a reluctance to trust. Growing up, most girls learn to revel in their beauty as a means to an end. Remember when Beyoncé said, ‘Momma said, you’re a pretty girl. What’s in your head doesn’t matter’? I could not imagine those words coming from my own mother’s mouth. My Momma said, ‘So what if you’re a girl? What’s in your head is all that matters!’
Being her girl meant wearing long, pleated skirts with thick petticoats to keep the lechers away; it meant suspecting a diabolical streak in every breathing man, even if he was just good old Dad. Being her child meant increasing my tolerance for pain. I bruised my fingers trying to impress her with heavy household chores. To this day, my soft, pink fingers remain her greatest failure.
Growing up like this, I did not get to underplay the power men wielded in their fists. Instead, I developed an ingrained mistrust for their seductive smiles. I was no Little Red Riding Hood. No man would ever lure me into tiptoeing close enough to see the wolf under his bonnet. I prided myself in keeping love at arm’s length.
Where was I when at fifteen, the wolves turned to princes? Who taught my friends that men hid flowers and chocolate inside their paws? How did my peers learn to love the thing we had religiously learned to fear? Which remedial class took place at thirteen? When did biting boys for touching you turn into kissing them for tormenting you?
I was at University when I got the courage to go on one of the shamefully few dates I had ever been on. He was a boy I had forgotten existed. He implied that he had watched me closely back when we were children. Sweet, right?
Stalker, I thought, suspiciously.
In a public post on Facebook, he declared that he wanted to meet me. I distrusted my male friends. How could I make such a U-turn for a stranger? He was quite good-looking – a tale as old as time. I balled my fists and typed, No.
As though he knew my weakness, he typed, I dare you.
I imposed a million conditions on that ill-fated date:
- We had to communicate on Facebook because I had just read an article about a guy who drugged and raped hundreds of girls he only met on Facebook by getting them to meet him. (Sound familiar?). We would not exchange phone numbers
- I would choose the place
- …on second thought, I didn’t know any places but it had to be near the University
- In an open place
- With a clear exit
- Before we lost daylight!
Sometimes I feel sorry for how blatant my suspicions of him were. I imagine he must have regaled his friends with stories of the uptight girl who made him work, just for a chance to eat bitter chocolate ice cream. Perhaps he might have gone to his hostel and cooled off, realizing that this girl unlike the ones he had met before me had an ego that rivaled his in size.
Is it too much to hope that he went back to his hostel that evening and thought, Maybe she struggles to lay a delicate balance between the concretized notions of her childhood, which warn her never to trust a man, and the glimmers of attraction she might feel for me? Could it be that her experiences have mirrored her mother’s advice rinsed out of her grandmother’s mouth and regurgitated for all women before her to protect them from random acts of gender-based violence? Could it be that women with attractive faces do not always have attractive personalities, not out of spite for men but because they are not, after all, made from cardboard and tape?
We failed to synchronize our messages on Facebook.
Where are you? he would ask.
Still in class, I would reply an hour later. Let us meet at four.
Four is too early.
I set off without reading that message.
I am setting off, he texted an hour after I had arrived. I will find you by the road.
As I waited for him in a restaurant nearby, I scrutinized his profile picture. It was your standard weird selfie. I wondered what I was thinking. Unable to back out of a reckless game my ego had dangled before me, I had set myself up for a potential murder documentary ending. I ate ice cream while I waited, wondering if I really wanted him to come and too obstinate to back out of it. He appeared at last with a scowl on his face.
It is harder to synchronize Facebook messages when you are looking for a person’s exact location. He had difficulty finding me and, apparently, that was the last straw.
“Why did you refuse to give me your number?”
An awkward hug heightened the tension.
“I haven’t met you since you were twelve. I don’t know you that well.”
“It’s just a phone number.”
I was thinking of hackers and serial killers. “You found me,” I pointed out stubbornly.
“Let’s go where we’re going,” he grumbled, marching ahead of me.
“I need to throw this tin somewhere.” I indicated the empty ice cream tin I held.
He sneered as though he had kept an offensive thought to himself. I smiled with my teeth and bit back a retort. He led me to an ice cream parlor after enduring my nervous tosh about wanting to dispose of rubbish properly in a slum whose soil winked black and green with disposed polythene waste.
Finally, we sat down.
“I’m surprised you came,”he muttered.
Surprised implied that he knew me better than he assumed. We had not shared more than four words in the entire course of our lives.
“You were such a crybaby,” he explained.
I had not known myself to be one, considering my stern upbringing. I bit my tongue.
“Boys feared that if we told you anything you’d go running to Mummy.”
I knew then that the date was a bust. He ignored the effort I had plastered all over my body. I had worn clothes I only saved for special occasions and carried all my courage with my heart in my pocket.
He grumbled about how I could not save him a moment in school. He sneered too often. I remember giving up on the conversation and letting him enjoy the sound of his voice. I recall gritting my teeth and letting him voice all he had ever thought of me, most of which was untrue.
By the grace of God. his roommate called him, giving us an excuse to end the torture. It was six o’clock when we left the parlor and stood in the setting sun. For once, I was not guilty that I had not paid my own bill. It was the least he could do.
“Do you want to meet my roommate?” he asked. For the first time that evening, the concrete mask he wore slipped off; he looked nervous and apologetic about the ammunition he had wasted on my barely breathing corpse.
“No, thank you.” I said. We hugged again, more sincerely this time.
“Are you sure?” he asked again with regret in his eyes. Maybe he would have been nicer had I reconsidered. Maybe his roommate would have fallen in love with me. Maybe the date would have escalated into what I had always feared men to be. I did not leave it to chance.
“I am sure.”
As I walked back to my room that evening, having hopped onto a motorcycle to escape him, I thought of my days as an eighteen-year-old. How I had dragged my body from place to place nursing the mother of all unrequited crushes for a boy I would never date, how I had once brimmed with hope that only my cynicism stood in the way of the love I suspected lurked out there. I realized then that I had invested more than I had bargained for in the failed date with the beautiful boy with an ugly streak.
That evening, I sat in my room in my wrinkled clothes berating myself for daring to believe. In the back of my mind, I had hoped he would be the One. Though I had grown up cynical, it occurred to me that my mother’s fears had not stripped my still-innocent heart of its hope.
Many years have passed since that date, but its memory still frightens me. On the bad days, I get terrified that my fear and pride will assist me in dying alone; that I should know and understand that though men are imperfect, women must learn to tolerate and love their flaws. On good days I know that it is not worth it beating myself up over having refused to fall to my knees impressing guys who do not recognize the pain and effort, the fear and insecurity which accompany me to their doors, which still my arm before I throw my heart in the ring.
Since then, I have been through so much heartache that I wonder how my body contains it. Nevertheless, I have also said many firm Noes. I have listened to songs which bring easy tears to my eyes; I have witnessed the real thing happening in the lives of those around me. As the thirties sneak up on me, that wild diary-entry stage of a woman’s life, my fingers convulse often around my phone, regretting all the Noes that could have been Yeses. I pick up that phone and put it down again knowing that there is a reason why the people we forego do not make it through the red tape.
As a Ugandan woman, each New Year forges a link in my chain mail. The Ugandan gossip scene is so intrusive that your loved ones are not even aware of how brutally their concern injures you. Each year, I must defend my reasons for not marrying up, down, or at all. I must bear reminders about my eggs losing their sheen, about how I must open up while someone still wants to get in.
One morning last year as I mentally steeled myself to be a bridesmaid, a seventy-year-old lady asked me if I was married. It was the worst possible time of the day and of my life.
My first thought was, I can’t. I literally cannot, this morning. “Nedda,” No, I said instead, with a bright grin, hoping that this would suffice. It did not.
“Onoonya?” Are you searching? Her alarm was evident.
“Of course,” I stammered, my heart sinking.
She pictured my eggs- my semi-glossy eggs. “Well, now that you are through with school, you need a title. You don’t want people to simply call you Nagundi.”
Had I had less manners, I would have reminded her that Nagundi was indeed my name and that I had no problem answering to it. It was clear however, that she wanted me to acquire the marital stamp and I thought better than to argue with a woman of that peevish age.
I do want to marry, but never to settle, I did not say. I want it all: the romance, the silent conversation, and the unimpeachable trust. I want the sleepy dialogue over supper. I want the affection. I want the arguments that make you wonder why you did it and then the stunning realization that you would do it again.
I am scared of the other side of it all: the children, the weight women must lug around to achieve them, the rigors of family planning, the money troubles, and the forked tongues of friends who suddenly wish for you to fail. I have nightmares about the crushing betrayals that come with loving a man unconditionally. In my experience, it has happened too often.
“Topapa,” don’t rush, the old lady reconsidered, as though a golden beam had illuminated her dyed black hair. “You need to be careful with these men.” She harrumphed then chortled to herself. “If you don’t study them closely enough you might meet a musezi – a night-dancer – and he might eat you.” She chuckled.
Night dancers are cannibals.
Smiling to myself, I thought, “We agree on something after all!”
This narrative essay was first published on Midnight & Indigo, a literary platform for black women.