An excerpt from Chapter One of Julie Iromuanya's Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, reprinted with permission from Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (Coffeehouse Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Julie Iromuanya
Everything Job Ogbonnaya knew about sex he learned from American pornography. So on their first unchaperoned meeting, Job rushed his new wife, splitting her thin body against the papered wall of their lavish honeymoon suite at the Presidential Hotel in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Job tore at her lacy pink panties and only released his lips from her face to haltingly shout, “You-are-the-dirty-slut-girl!”
Ifi punched his gut with the sharp heel of her sandal. He crumpled. Together they landed on the floor in a tangled heap, legs splayed in every direction.
“You are ugly,” she said, glaring at him. Potato-sack head. Stout shoulders. Hog’s gut. Bushy, curling eyebrows. Thick glasses pushed into the lips of his nose. “Eh? And now a beast? I married a beast. Hey!” She wound up her fist and struck him squarely on an ear.
Job clutched his throbbing ear. For a moment, he struggled to unwind the underwear from his wrists before handing them back to her.
When Ifi attempted to put them on, the ripped elastic band left the underwear lopsided on her hips. “You see what you have done, oh?” She thought of the time and care she and Aunty had put into her appearance for this day—the matching underwear set, the hours cooking her hair in an egg-smelling relaxer and then curling it; her lipstick and eyeliner were now a streaky veneer finish on her face.
A solid fist banged at the door. Ifi disappeared into the bathroom, clutching at the panties. When Job opened the door, a man in a too-tight suit stared up at him with liquid eyes.
“Is everything fine, sah?” The man took in Job’s appearance—his trousers with the zipper open and belt dangling, his face prickling with beads of sweat, his slack, bare chest. A smile gradually spread over his face.
Job cleared his throat and heard his father’s voice in his ears. “What is this? You have come to disturb me on the day of my honeymoon with this nonsense?”
“No, sah, my apologies, sah,” the man said.
Job and the man stood in the doorway, awaiting the next line in the script. Finally Job gently let the door close on the man’s teasing grin.
He turned back to Ifi, who now sat on the bed with her legs crossed, her face turned away from him. He positioned himself so that his body was turned away from hers too, then gradually he made his way toward her. Still she remained unmoved. His hand snaked toward her bare, brown thigh. Her skin gleamed, shiny. Just before he touched her, his hand dropped short. He thought of her words. She had looked prettier in the photographs, even light skinned—not this tall, skinny thing with no buttocks. She was lucky a man like Job Ogbonnaya would even consider her appropriate for marriage. Although Job’s life had been bare in America, he had never convinced himself that what he felt was loneliness.
She looked tossed apart to him, like the two legs of the goat his grandparents had butchered in honor of the engagement. On the day of the celebration, Job had stood back warily as the butcher knocked the goat unconscious before they pulled its insides apart and prepared it for roasting. He’d always loved goat meat, so much so that as a child he’d earned the nickname onye ohi, thief, from his mother and sisters, because he would always let his hand slip into the large pot and steal bits of meat as it cooked. Still, he’d wanted no part of the killing.
“I can give you back to your people,” Job said.
Ifi turned a furious glare on him, one eye widening. Aunty and Uncle would be angry with her. After all, they had found her a doctor husband who lived in America. He had even promised to send her to an American university, so that she could be a nurse in his clinic. Aunty would say, How can you, an orphan, be so ungrateful? Aunty would say that all their hard work in raising her since her parents died had been in vain. Still, Ifi could not take this. She was nearly thirty, almost a decade older than he believed, not a child.
She would find her own way to her dreams without him. “I will go,” she said. Their bags were open on the floor of the hotel room. Ifi began, indiscriminately, to dump article after article of clothing into her suitcase. Job saw his tan slacks disappearing into the bag. “That belongs to me,” he said.
As if in rewind, Ifi flung clothes out of the bag. “It belongs to you!” she said. “It belongs to you!” Job ducked, barely missing the flying clothes.
“Ifi,” he started. Then, clumsily, he added, “Darling.” Although she didn’t turn back, she stopped flinging objects from the bag. He thought of his virgin wife tensed against the wall and wondered. Surely she had been schooled in the responsibilities that came with marriage. But perhaps she hadn’t. No one had explained it to him. He had been a boy of nineteen when he first came to America all those years ago.
Job sifted through his bags until, from far beneath the clothes and shoes, he produced a faded, well-worn magazine. He slid the magazine across the bed to Ifi and flipped it open.
It was a simple enough story. Page one: the doctor and the patient. The caption read, “Doctor, it hurts here,” followed by, “Let me examine you.”
Ifi flipped the page. The doctor’s milky buttocks stared back at her. The patient had her arms and head back and was chortling wildly.
“What is this?” Ifi exclaimed. Was this how Americans paid for medicine? She covered her eyes, but couldn’t help peeking through her fingers. She had been with one man before, but it was over in seconds, and she’d never actually seen him completely disrobed.
Suddenly there was a flickering of lights, a gasp, and the room filled with darkness. They waited for the generator to click on, Ifi curious to turn the page, and Job expecting to consummate the marriage without further complication. When the generator did not turn on, Job instead suggested that they leave the room for a meal.
They ate at an outdoor restaurant, partially shaded from the elements by skinny, frayed umbrellas. Fela Kuti roared from a radio. A big man in khaki pants and a loud printed shirt owned the restaurant. He wrapped Job in a thundering embrace. “Oga! Doctor!” he said, “Mr. Doctor, how long are you staying with us?” Job told him he was with his wife on honeymoon, and the man proceeded to rattle off all the years he had known Job and his family. “This man’s father is my father’s cousin. I have known him since before he could stand.”
Job ordered two Coronas. When the bottles arrived, sweating cool, wet pearls down the sides, he paid in U.S. dollars. Ifi and Job sat silently across from one another as he swallowed his Corona and then hers. Job sucked the layers of slippery flesh free of the fish bone as Ifi nibbled. She sat quietly—thinking of the magazine—and wondered, Is this how Americans pay my doctor husband? Light streamed in diagonally, cutting his face into odd patterns. His features seemed to surrender to his surroundings. Is this what America does to a man?
Finally she spoke, her voice low. “Are Americans so poor that they must . . .” She couldn’t finish her question without thinking of the naked doctor and patient.
Job sipped the beer and told her, “Money is time in America.” Then he launched into telling her about the shops, the ladies’ clothes, the shoes, and Ifi was no longer listening.
A beggar boy of perhaps nine moved from table to table with a pan full of peanuts. His lean, meatless face was filled with long lashes, and his sinewy limbs were shiny and exposed through the holes in his wrinkled Michael Jackson t-shirt.
Many of the dining couples flagged him away in annoyance or simply ignored him. But he refused to go unnoticed. He leaned into a table where a large woman and a thin man took up the seats. They were dressed well. He winked flirtatiously and clicked his teeth at the lady. “Mah,” he said, smiling. “Mah.”
“I will buy you a fur coat,” Job said to Ifi. He would have to get one of fake fur.
“Mah,” the boy said again.
“I am not your mama,” the woman said, drawing her wobbly chin back. “I am not old enough to be your mama.” Shifting her wig back, she turned away from him.
“This foolish boy,” the man said. Still, with his knees pulled close together, he smiled and hunched forward, scraping the floor with a cane. He was old enough to be the woman’s grandfather, much older than Job.
Ifi wondered how this man and woman had met. Ifi had met Job only once before their honeymoon. Even during the wedding, Job’s junior brother had stood in while he was in America. All Ifi had remembered from her one meeting with Job was that his face was nothing more than a jagged relief etched on the dark. He’d sat across from Ifi, Aunty, and Uncle, all squeezed together on the smaller couch so that he could have the large one. Aunty and Uncle had unsuccessfully tried to borrow a generator for the occasion and had been forced to settle on kerosene, so they stiffly argued about Nepa, the oil truck drivers’ strike, corrupt politicians, and the ongoing teachers’ strike in abashed explanation. The kerosene had scrubbed roughly at Ifi’s nostrils and throat. Outside, she’d heard the sounds of church services going on despite the dark along the length of their street. Children had been playing outside, chasing the rooster and dirtying their bony knees in the muddy roadway. She’d thought of how the ankles of the man who sat before her would, in light, appear like the children’s: bloodied from the wet, dirt road.
Before they met, there were packages of gifts. At the time, Ifi knew nothing of the letters, pictures, and conversations with the people who would become her in-laws. All her life, Ifi had been instructed to tell neighbors, friends, agemates, that her father was away, whether they believed it or not. So she fooled herself into believing that the packages were from him—that he really did live in America or London or Germany, that he had never been arrested for suspicion of fraud, that he had never been investigated and then murdered before his arraignment. As her cousins paraded through the potholed streets of their neighborhood in blue jeans and sweaters that were too big for their slight frames and too bulky for the thick Nigerian heat, Ifi had imagined her father sitting behind a large desk in London, papers stacked neatly around him awaiting his signature.
Of the sweaters, blue jeans, and jewelry, Ifi kept nothing except for a red, gold-chained handbag that she took out only for church—and today. Only after the package’s contents had been spread across the couches did Aunty and Uncle inform her that a man was coming to visit her. Aunty had watched her closely that day. “You see all the good things we’ve done for you? You, a skinny girl with nothing. No parents, sef. And now you will see America.”
Ifi needed to ask Job about this America. Before leaving her cousins’ laughter, Aunty’s gossip, and Uncle’s stories, she needed to know everything. But the skinny beggar boy was standing at their table now. Ifi began to shoo him away, but Job stopped him. The boy dumped the peanuts into his palms, tumbling his hands in such a way that he magically released the shells. He was grinning, proud of his work, but how could he be so pleased in his condition? She imagined him curled into a tight ball underneath a bridge near the hotel. The ground would be muddy, a deep red where the rain had softened the earth. If he slept deeply, he might not notice how close his face was to the water; the shit; the dead, malarial mosquitoes. Ifi shuddered. Instead of sitting at a fancy table alongside her doctor husband, she would have been an under-the-bridge girl, had it not been for Aunty and Uncle.
The little boy before her. Too small for his shirt. The shirt with all its holes. He would have gnats and lice in his hair. His skin, his lips, chalky from the residue of dusty dirt.
Job was still smiling in distracted amusement at the boy when Ifi thrust forward the bowl of peanuts. “Ngwa, go!” The peanuts splattered across the table and the floor. The boy’s eyes met Ifi’s in desperation, just for a second, before he averted his gaze to the ground in deference.
The restaurant owner was on them in seconds. He knocked the boy’s head with the back of his hand. “Why must you disturb my customer? He is a doctor, here from America for only a short time. I will beat you today!” To Ifi and Job he said, “I am so sorry.” The boy tried to run, but the man shoved him to the ground with his foot and began to beat him.
The boy whimpered and heaved tearless cries. “No, sah!” He turned to Ifi. “Sorry, Aunty!” he said. On his knees he begged, his thin, quivering frame on the floor before her.
Ifi’s voice was small as she spoke. “Leave him.” Everything stopped. A chill rose through her body. This was what it meant to be a big woman.
Half-bowing, half-filling the bowl, the boy attempted to sweep up the mess as he left. He would go hungry for the rest of the day, maybe the rest of the week, without the money he would have earned from the peanuts. “Leave him,” Ifi said again, with force. “Ego,” she said to Job. “We will pay for the nuts.”
Job retrieved a few naira. He tossed them on the ground.
“Go,” Ifi said. “Go!” The boy collected the money and ran as fast as his bony legs allowed.
When he was gone, the fat lady laughed into the skinny man’s ears. The bartender brought Ifi and Job two more bottles of Corona. On the house. And Job said to no one in particular, “In America, boys like that are in school.”
By the time they started back to the hotel, a steel gray had enveloped the orange sun as night began its descent. All around, the breeze interrupted the calm of long-necked palm trees. With their wares balanced on their heads, hawkers darted across the streets. Job’s driver swerved through the gaps in the roadway with practiced turns that knocked Job and Ifi into one another. Each time they touched, Job felt the softness of her skin against his. He tried to reconcile this gentle touch with her harsh way with the boy, telling himself that he had been in America too long. Even the boy, with his tearless cries, had walked with his head erect. He would likely brag to the boys in his gang about how his crocodile tears had earned him double what they had earned. Now, more than ever, Job was glad to be home.
When they reached the hotel, they did not immediately return to their room. Instead, they made their way across the marble lobby floor that Job explained was imported from Spain, France, somewhere like that. A dull light glowed from the gift shop across the lobby. The gift shop was a boxed-in room with shiny glass walls. From the outside, the glass walls, illuminated by shocks of overhanging lights, gave the illusion that the cramped space was larger than it actually was. Nearly every inch of its shelves was loaded with trinkets: jewelry, clay figurines, wood-carved masks. Paintings of women with baskets on their heads were hanging or leaned against the walls, filling every available space. As Ifi gazed at the objects, her eyes stilled on a painting of a couple in an amorous embrace.
“Do you like?” Job asked.
“No.” A necklace of shiny shells and beads was the first item within Ifi’s reach. She grabbed it. For the first time, the storekeeper pulled away from the cash register and gave her attention to the pair. “Ah, lady of fashion,” she said. Up until then, she had been curtained behind paintings across the room, her eyes idly following the couple as she leafed through a magazine. “You must buy the earrings and bracelet too, or it will not be complete.”
Without complaint, Job purchased the jewelry and handed it to Ifi, mentally subtracting the cost from the wad of bills tucked away in his briefcase. When they left the gift shop, both knew that they would be heading to the empty room, the large bed tauntingly illustrating its sole purpose.
Ifi followed Job inside. Hot, stale air had settled for too long. Their bed had been remade, each pillow set delicately. The clothes Ifi had thrown about the room were neatly folded in their suitcases. Even the magazine was packed away as if the morning had never happened, as if Job and Ifi were entering for the first time.
Ifi set her handbag down and sat on the bed, the tiny package in her hands.
“Will you not try them?” Job asked.
Ifi wordlessly unraveled the necklace, earrings, and bracelet. She slipped the earrings and bracelet on without trouble, but when it came to the necklace, she struggled. Her back and shoulders relaxed under Job’s hands as he tried his fingers over the clasp. Finally he managed to connect it. He stepped back, swollen with the small success. It was beautiful.
When Ifi rose to make her way to the bathroom mirror, she could not move her neck. The clasp had caught on her hair. Job tried to pull it free, but Ifi swung her arms wildly as if swatting a mosquito. “Leave me!” she yelled. “Leave me, oh!”
Job yanked harder at the clasp. Suddenly the necklace exploded, shells flying in every direction.
Ifi collapsed to her knees and began to pick up the shells. Impossible. She would be on her knees all night, like the boy in the restaurant.
“Leave it,” Job said. “I will buy another.” Ifi ignored him, silent tears spreading down her cheeks.
When the lights went out again with a sudden whoosh, Job was relieved. In the darkness, Ifi continued to feel her way to each shell. Job opened and shut drawers in search of matches or a lighter. In the bottom drawer of the bathroom sink, his fingers finally closed over a box of matches, slightly damp with the scent of cleaning fluids. He tried each match until he finally found one that worked and struck it. From there, he could just make out a raw, half-eaten candle, which he lit.
With a backwards swipe, Job erased the perspiration from his face. He decided that he would return her to her people and go back to America alone. His family could begin the process again, inquiring into the reputation of each prospective family, sending him snapshots of stoic women, their heads draped in wigs, coolly gazing past the flash of the camera.
She should have been prettier, he told himself. After all, his family had made a point of forgiving her poverty; her good name would do. She was tall by his family’s standards. Lean in a way that made wrappers and dresses appear ill fitting and silly. Still, her thinness was ideal for the blue jeans that American women wore. His father, who had never visited America but had watched every videocassette he had mailed him, had reminded Job of this. His grandmother had insisted her small buttocks would grow with the birth of their first child. She is still just a child herself, she had explained. Ifi’s legs were bony and ridged at the knees, her face taut with strain around her eyes, as if she squinted furiously at everything. She was also not as light skinned as his mother would have preferred, and her hair was not ideal. But, Job reminded himself, she wasn’t ugly.
Job sank down onto the toilet, striking his foot against Ifi’s bag and knocking the few articles of clothing, makeup, perfume, and jewelry loose. He began to place each item back in the bag, using the flickering light of the candle as a guide. Women with all their tools. Men didn’t have it as easy. If a woman was fat, thin, too dark, too light, too short, too tall, there was always something she could do about it. His sisters, Jenny and Florence, had used lightening creams for years, wearing tall heels to compensate for their short frames and even slipping cotton balls into their bras. When they went to their rooms at night, they were his plain sisters with ashy skin and acne, but when they reemerged, they were something new.
His fingers ran along a pearl necklace in Ifi’s bag. He’d sent it to her many months before. He remembered the awkwardness of picking it out at Wal-Mart, the saleslady watching him closely as he gazed into the glass case. Now, he lifted it against his hairy chest and clasped the ends behind his neck. Success. Why hadn’t he been able to get it right when it mattered?
With the pearls around his neck, he remembered the feeling he had the first time he wore a stethoscope. Strangely, it was just like this, the same satisfaction. A small smile grew on his face as he listened for his heartbeat once more. He was a boy the first time he’d heard this sound—the wonder, the amazement at a device that could track the rapid sound of his own music. His brother, Samuel, had smiled when Job asked if a small ear was in the tool.
After the funeral, when Job was going through his brother’s things in the room they’d shared, he found the stethoscope again. Job fingered and played with it, listening to the sound for a long time, enthralled. His mother came in then and saw him on his knees with his dead brother’s things scattered around him on the floor. She beat him, asking what he was thinking, playing with his brother’s belongings. “Samuel will be angry. Hurry, put it away!” she had said, as if Samuel was among the living, as if he was still fighting for Biafra.
After the beating was over, and Job wept silently at his sister’s side, his father called him over. Job’s mother was turned away, her face set in a frown. His father had the box of Samuel’s things. “Choose what you like,” he said to Job, “and then I must never see you playing in this box, you hear?”
At first, Job didn’t know what to do. He saw his mother with the look she made when she tasted something spoiled, so he waited, but he heard nothing. After a while, she turned to face him. Only then did he take the box. He went through it, lifting each object out slowly, examining it, deciding on its weight, its smell, its usefulness. Since the stethoscope was the start of all the trouble, he wanted nothing to do with it. Instead, he took a jazz record. He had never heard it play, but he knew one day he would have the money to buy a music machine of his own. He also took a cricket ball and mallet. He would practice until he was better than all of his agemates. Samuel’s trousers were too long, but he took them anyway, and his brother’s hat, which he tipped forward on his head, like his brother had. The brim dangled over his eyes. A smile twitched on his mother’s lips, loosening the scowl, so he put on his brother’s pants, adjusting his hips so that the waist gapped around his narrow body. Like the trunk of an elephant, the trouser legs bagged at his feet. His mother laughed and pulled him into her arms for a tight hug, her eyes wet with tears when she released him.
“He is not finished,” his father had said. He pushed the box back toward Job. All that remained was the stethoscope. Job wanted nothing to do with it. “Take it,” his father had said. Job shook his head furiously. His father reached for him and put it around Job’s neck. He put the ear tips in Job’s ears and then, kneeling before him, he placed the chestpiece to his own chest. Job heard no sound, so he adjusted the chest piece until he found the sound of his father’s heartbeat, a dull, raspy thudding.
Standing in the hotel bathroom on the night of his honeymoon, Job no longer replayed his memory of the stethoscope. Instead, he remembered his mother’s laughter at the sight of his small frame in his brother’s oversized clothes. She had gone from tears to anger to laughter, just like that. But what had made her laugh? Was it merely the sight of him in his brother’s clothes? It had to have been more than that.
Job picked up Ifi’s perfume, sprayed it into the air, and sniffed. It smelled good. He twirled his fingertip in her rouge, absentmindedly dragging a deep red line across the sink. Then, still staring at the streak, he began to spread the rouge on his cheeks, then his eyelids, and finally his lips. Laughing, he reached for her bra, thinking of his flat-chested sisters standing before the mirror as small girls. He put it on, filling each cup with toilet tissue. Ballooning his chest, he made motions like a woman, then a gorilla, then the Incredible Hulk. The little cups barely jiggled on his chest. He chuckled—how silly this was! But maybe, like his mother did, Ifi would laugh; perhaps like his father did, Ifi would hope.
He didn’t see himself in the mirror. Instead, he saw his reflection in Ifi’s horrified expression as she leaned in the doorway: potbellied, tangled curly hairs escaping the bra, straps crookedly balanced on his broad shoulders, smudged red rouge covering his mouth, as much on his teeth as on his lips. She wasn’t laughing, not even a hint of a smile. Ifi was paralyzed and Job was too, his mind flashing to the kind of humiliation her scorn could bring. He simply could not survive it. He had failed badly. Job struggled to peel off the bra. Pretend this never happened. Send her home with the driver. Return to
Suddenly, she let out a burst of laughter. She raised her hand, stopping him. Her eyes formed a question, then her lips followed: “Americans do this, too?”
“Nothing is too strange for Americans,” he admitted.
Ifi motioned to her dress, heaped on the floor. With a toe, she gently kicked it to him. Go on, her look said, don’t let me interrupt you.
Is she trying to make a fool of me? He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.
And suddenly he realized, understood, that something had been fixed, and would be broken if he did not proceed. Just not while she watched. Twirling his finger, he motioned for her to look the other way. She obliged. Carefully, he stepped into her dress, yellow with daisies along the bottom, fitted around the waist. It was a struggle, but eventually he secured the straps in the back. There he stood, ashy feet and unclipped toenails peeking out from under the hem. “Turn around,” he said.
When she saw him, something like hiccups began to erupt from her chest—a laugh.
He sighed. He could do nothing but blow her a kiss.
As she backed through the open doorway, falling onto the bed, she continued to laugh. He turned his hips this way and that, standing on his toes as if in his sisters’ heels. She laughed harder, nearly choking.
“No, no! Like this.” Standing before him, Ifi began to stir her buttocks in slow, deliberate strokes. She spun as if she were unwinding. Once thin and featureless, her body was now defined only by the movement in her hips.
Jerking his hips, knees, and buttocks, Job imitated her. Uproarious laughter rose through Ifi, exaggerating the movement in her hips until she could dance no more. There was a freshness in her face. It made Job laugh as he hadn’t in years.
It was only natural that gradually the clothes began to fall away. The dress refused to come off peacefully; it caught on the bra strap. He squeezed each buttock muscle individually as he lowered the bra to step out of it. It didn’t occur to him that he could simply turn the bra around and unclasp it. One after another, he fought each article of clothing before tossing it to her.
With nothing but the makeup on, Job came toward his wife. Propped on the bathroom sink, the dancing flames peeked through the open doorway and illuminated Job just enough so that the contours of his heavily painted face were accented. Ifi ran her fingers across her husband’s face, tenderly wiping away the rouge with his sweat. “This is only for your lips,” she said. “And for your eyes, there is something called eye shadow and mascara. Did your mother not teach you anything?”
Then, in a blast, the light returned.
In the blinding light, their gazes split apart.
She could not look at him. He could not look at her.
Learn more about Julie Iromuanya at her website.