Hell is other people. This is true. I’m probably paraphrasing somebody smarter than me when I say this, a philosopher maybe. Someone else said, you carry your hell within you and this is true too. So, either in solitude or a crowd, as long as you are alive, the feeling of being in hell is a distinct possibility.
What truly gets to me, though, is how compact you can become around other people. You may be all sorts of things, witty, free and interesting, but you are nullified, your potential cancelled out, fractionated into a distilled version of who you are around others. Pulled into an orbit, you become useful for only a small set of things, fitting into a list of other people they know, in a hierarchy of value you weren’t even aware you were auditioning for. So you remain stuck in a role that for as long as you exist and come into contact with each other, will continue to play out. Hell is not an inferno; it is a frozen sea. I am locked within myself, connected to no one, frozen from the core of me right up to my eyes, behind them. Dead.
I am sitting at my breakfast table as I write this, and just opposite me, riveted by colouring books and Golden Morn, sit my husband and his son. I say his son, as though I didn’t carry him and birth him. I did. The thing is he was lost to me as soon as I emptied him from my womb. The moment my son landed in his fathers arms, they bonded and shut me out. It has been like that ever since, them over there, across a gulf and then me, with my iced over soul.
Ordinarily, I would be happy about this, the daddy and son closeness, many boys suffer severe absentee daddy issues. I should know, being a school principal. They cut across the board too, from the boisterous popular boy to the over achiever and the quiet rebel in the corner. In school hallways, they form their factions and build up walls to protect their cliques but, ultimately, they are all the same, lost, and little. So, as I say, I should be glad about all this. My five-year-old son Sadiq being a torturous derisive replica of the fraud I married but alas, I am not. He will grow up to be just like his father, just like him, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It is out of my hands.
I often think there is a letter on its way to change a person’s life at any given moment. Because I am the principal, I send out many letters. Of course, the school secretary does the typing and I endorse them but I mastermind the orchestra of letters floating around at any given time. I send letters promoting students, awarding them scholarships or certificates of excellence. Sometimes its suspensions and an occasional expulsion letter, and that’s just the students. I write letters to the teachers, gardeners, cleaners everyone. It’s why I am writing one now, seems befitting. When I sit behind my letter writing desk, I am powerful, irrevocably in charge, the master communicator. A school is a mini kingdom and I am it’s Queen. You know, in a way, I address this to my husband too, this way he may not reduce me to a petty insignificant.
Affairs are tacky, aren’t they? Just the word fills me with revulsion and annoyance. I imagine undercover trips to dingy motels and seduction and lies. A comedy really, because people get caught, sometimes in hilarious circumstances, pants down and in flagrante delicto, as they say. So, no, my thing with Bolaji will not be called an affair. I just wanted to be alone with somebody else, to create an intimate landscape, to fall into them. Bolaji had an ice pick in him that was finally, slowly chipping away at the frozen sea within me. Forgive the innuendo, I meant it metaphorically. When I met Usman, Sadiq’s father and my reluctant husband, he told me many things. The waltz of love is an exchange of promises, flattery and a utopian future eloquently described. He liked my levelheaded approach to life, my logic, my slim ankles, the upturn of my lips when I smile and my scent. I loved him just because he noticed, because he even took the time to create this dossier about me, from my mind to my ankles. Cue bitter laughter.
Within a few months, logic became coldness; level headedness became lack of empathy, and my ankles? Do ghosts have ankles? He looks at me like a mystery solved. He talks about me as though I cannot fathom myself and everything I do further convicts me of a crime I have committed against him. This poison in our marriage spread, now, my son sees me the same way. When I enter a room, my son’s shoulders droop; he looks beyond me immediately, seeking his father.
Anyway, it is all over now. You smelled a rat; your son had suddenly changed, had all this expensive stuff and had started playing truant. And you never received a letter from me, ever diligent principal, consistent letter writer. Before I knew what was happening I was in front of the board of trustees and the whole thing was out. You were devastated. I stood there and felt ashamed, of course, and slightly jealous of you. Yes, envy, that you are in tune with your child enough to have felt the changes so strongly. I even envied your tears and pain. I haven’t truly felt anything for years, except when I was with your son, when he looked at me, or touched me, or woke up at 3a.m. to call me, asking if I was alright.
The letter on its way to my house now is the first one in the five years of being a school principal that I did not endorse. I have lost everything. I know what I did was wrong, selfish, obscene. I am writing this letter to let you know that I am not a monster. That I have finally figured out a way to escape the hell I have been in for so many years. And that I am sorry. When I finish breakfast, I will address it to you and place it in my pocket, walk back into my room and lie down. By then the poison should have taken effect.
Understand that I cannot allow my husband read the letter from the board of trustees while I am alive. Nor can I bear the shame of everyone finding out what I have done. It is better this way.