Chapter 18: River Lea
I started to tidy up the house so I could leave it clean and not have to worry about any mess when I got back. I needed to do the laundry before we went and clear out the fridge of anything that would expire within a week.
Just like every Friday, I had plenty of time to kill before my son returned home from visiting his father and grandparents, so I occupied myself with cleaning the house and tidying the mess that had piled up during the week. I was vacuuming when I came across a pile of bills, work papers and doodles my son had drawn. I sorted through them and threw everything I didn’t need in the trash. I was surprised to find a photo of me and my ex-husband on our honeymoon among the papers.
“What’s this doing here?” I stared at the photo, recalling the memories of love, desire and anger we had shared.
The photo had been taken at the hotel we had stayed in. As I sat on the balcony wearing a straw hat and enjoying the sun he tried to take a photo of me. I remember smiling and telling him to come and sit beside me.
I hugged him, not realizing that love stories didn’t always end in love. I had been raised on happily ever after stories. To me, Cinderella and Prince Charming hadn’t just been fictional characters from a fairy tale. They resembled a reality that I believed everyone could live out until I had been thunderstruck by my own marriage. I realized later that Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and even Snow White were just bedtime stories. We are told these tales so we could sleep and dream on!
I was so full of dreams back then. I dreamt of having a husband, a home and a family. I dreamt about becoming a grandmother. I dreamt that when my grandchildren came to visit me, I would hold their grandfather in my arms and tell them our fascinating love story; just as my parents had done for me. I dreamt about the peace that would fill our life together.
Now I wondered whether my ex-husband and I had really fallen in love or whether it was only me trying to live out that love for the sake of fantasy. I just didn’t know. All I knew was that I had given all the love I had; body, mind and soul.
All I wanted was for him to be happy. I had done everything I could to please him. Some nights I would light candles to give him a romantic, serene night; other times I would cook dinner all day long to bring him comfort and delight. And when he simply smiled coldly at me and walked straight into the bedroom to sleep, I would make excuses for him and blame myself for making such a lavish dinner on a work day.
I constantly made excuses for him: maybe he wasn’t used to married life and having a woman beside him. I had always tried to understand and support him. Our life together had grown colder and colder until the eight-month-old baby I carried inside me was all that had occupied my mind.
I went shopping for my son every day so that he would come into the world to find everything ready for him. I bought him clothes, nursery furniture and accessories, toys, a highchair, and everything else he might have needed. Despite being tired and pregnant, I spent at least six hours a day at the mall. I shopped like a person who had never shopped before. I thought at the time that I was doing it for the love of my baby, only to realize that I was doing it to avoid spending time with a husband I couldn’t bear.
Time passed by and it had felt as though our life was slipping away from us. Two years into the marriage my son became my everything; even before he had seen the light. I finally understood why my grandmother had loved my mother so much and why my mother had loved us. I understood why all my female friends said, “For the sake of my kids, I’ll tolerate it.”
This was the line every wife used to convince herself that she was fulfilling her duty as a mother and that she ought to sacrifice herself for her children, but who ever said children wanted to live in a house that was devoid of love? Who ever said children would be happy in a loveless household because their mother was being patient on their behalf? Who ever said the kids would realize and appreciate their mother’s tolerance, or that they wouldn’t blame her for her mistakes because it had been her life and her choice?
I refused to allow this kind of tolerance to suffocate my life. I couldn’t handle its flaws and cracks, in spite of the love I had felt for him at the beginning of our marriage. I couldn’t tolerate my husband for Waleed’s sake, yet I had tolerated many lawsuits and court hearings on his behalf. Didn’t that make me a patient mother?
Was it obligatory to lose one’s dignity along the path of patience? Should I have stayed with my husband after he brought another woman into his life, as Lara had done, just because I was supposed to be tolerant for my son’s sake? How could I ever have taught my son about dignity if he had seen me so downtrodden?
I had been lying on the couch during the eighth month of my pregnancy when my husband’s phone buzzed while he was out at the supermarket buying some groceries. I picked up the phone to find a text message sent by the other woman. “I love you,” it said.
I wasn’t mad; I just waited.
“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” he asked when he returned.
“You received a text while you were out.” I handed him the phone as I waddled into my bedroom. During the last few months of pregnancy it had been difficult to walk or even breathe.
My husband followed me and grabbed my hand before I entered the room. “Wait, Nadia, it’s —”
“It’s what?” I asked, interrupting him.
“Actually —” he said.
“Actually, I can’t take it any more. I can’t keep making excuses for you. I’m leaving.”
“No, wait. It’s not what you think.”
“What is it then? Do you have an explanation?”
“Yes, wait, I…” He paused. “Nadia, I feel as though our relationship has gone cold. Since you got pregnant I feel like you’ve become emotionally distant from me.”
“So that’s why you’re looking for warmth somewhere else?” I replied indifferently.
I turned to look at him, the rage killing me inside. “But what? I’m suffering here in the last month of my pregnancy and you’re blaming that for your lack of affection towards me, and using it as an excuse to run after another woman. Are you crazy? How could you do that when we’re expecting our first baby? Is this the memory you want me to have of my first pregnancy? Do you want our child to be a witness to this deceptive love between us?”
“Nadia, I’m a man and I have emotional needs that you’ve neglected during your pregnancy. You’ve been very preoccupied with this child.”
“And I have human needs that oblige you to preserve my dignity whether I’m around or not, but obviously you aren’t very good at that!”
“What dignity are you talking about? I haven’t insulted you in any way!”
“Of course, a man who’s used to injuring his wife physically isn’t going to care too much about humiliating her emotionally!”
“Don’t make me lose my temper! Watch your words!” He had moved towards me, a look of fury on his face.
“What are you going to do? Are you going to beat me again? Do you know what’s unprecedented?”
I remember walking towards the three steps in front of me, turning my back on him, having loosened his grip on my arm. “It’s unprecedented to love without pride. Do you know why? Because there’s no such thing as love!”
I had taken a few deep breaths and then let it all out. “I’ve packed my stuff and booked a flight. I’m leaving and you’re going to give me a divorce. I won’t tolerate this, even for the sake of my child.”
I had decided at the moment to file for divorce, but he hadn’t been on the same page, so the process of obtaining it had been lengthy and was still ongoing. We had taken each other to court and filed lawsuits regarding the terms of the divorce, the finances and child custody.
Despite this journey of torment, I felt content that I hadn’t yielded in the name of patience and that I hadn’t been humiliated by having to sacrifice myself for my child’s sake. My dignity was my right to defend. God had created us dignified and no one could violate that dignity. We, as individuals, were the ones who allowed others to subjugate us for all manner of reasons.
My phone rang, stirring me from my thoughts. It was my brother.
“Hello, how are you? Really? That’s great… Could you drop by and give it to me? Okay, I’ll be waiting for you… Bye.”
I collected my papers and tossed the honeymoon photo into the garbage. It meant nothing to me now. I suddenly remembered Inside Out, a film I had watched at the movie theater with my son a week earlier. Despite being an animated film, it somehow related to me at that moment. I felt that the ‘Love Island’ I had once had for my husband had collapsed and could never be rebuilt. The Love Island, with all its memories, needed to vanish now, even if the only trace left was a photo.
The doorbell rang and my brother was at the door. He was in a hurry.
“Here you go. It’s been with the lawyer for some time.”
“Won’t you come in?”
“No, I’ve got to go.”
“Okay, darling. Thank you.”
I tore open the envelope he had handed me and held my son’s passport in my hands for the first time. I don’t know why, but I smiled at first and then cried. It was the first time my son would be completely free with me. For the first time we could travel together without any conditions. For the first time I could hold his little hand on the streets of Italy or anywhere else; it didn’t matter where.
I looked out of the window and watched the torn-up streets beneath the feet of the passersby. Nothing mattered to me now that my son would be travelling to Italy with me.