CW: intimate partner violence
Gloria sat on the stiff motel mattress horrified, staring at her daughter’s silhouette in the next room. She shuddered, looking around Room 48 which was probably no larger than a prison cell. It smelled of a suspicious amount of disinfectant, lightly scraping her nostrils as she breathed in. Gloria could only imagine the endless odors and stains it was trying to suppress. Glancing at the mattress, she scooted closer to the edge. Minimal contact between the stiff board and herself might be best. Aging yellow wallpaper boxed her in. At one point, the sunflowers might have been cheerful, but Gloria doubted it. No motel that charged by the hour could be trusted. Gloria brought herself back to the room, and glanced through the cracked bathroom door. She watched her one and only daughter stand completely still with her face turned upwards to a steamy shower as she tried to keep her panic at bay. Surely this wasn’t Gloria’s child. It was like looking at an imposter who wasn’t even invested in selling the lie. This person, this bloodied naked shivering thing she had met in the motel’s parking lot, couldn’t possibly be Suubi. Gloria squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then snuck another glance towards the bathroom. There Suubi was, now slowly washing the blood and grime off her body and too exhausted to bother closing the hotel bathroom door.
Gloria was definitely losing her mind, she decided. She started praying hard as she felt the panic creep closer. Any moment now, Gloria was going to wake up in lush green Kololo, to the purple, large, long beaked birds known for their incessant screeching cry Mpabaana! Mpabaana! Give me children! Give me children! As a child, her grandmother had told her that supposedly, a man and wife had once starved themselves during a drought so that their children could eat whatever they needed. The couple eventually turned into the Hadada Ibis birds, these long gawky silvery dark green and purple birds that roamed the lands, calling out mpabaana, give me my children!
Gloria had always wanted to be a mother. Always. She had begged God for a child during her loveless marriage. She had begged for one even as she watched her marriage wither away, even as she let Grant claim irreconcilable differences, even as he spat out that if only she wasn’t as barren as the sahara. Even after all that she rose every morning and joined the birds in their pathetic plea for children; as if it now wasn’t enough to appeal to her God, she must now also appeal to whatever god the birds worshiped too. Maybe the bird’s god was evil. Perhaps it was wicked. But Gloria had swiftly swept these thoughts away. There was no such Bird god, only her God.
When she was thirty five and had all but given up, her God answered her prayer with Suubi. Hope. She didn’t care that it was through an adoption agency, she knew as soon as she saw Suubi that she was perfect. A scrawny child with yellow eyes like the 500 shilling coins, a shiny forehead, and odd patches of hair, Suubi was perfect. Suubi had been a quiet and reserved child; she hadn’t bubbled with the laughter of a child Gloria had craved. Suubi had exhibited a certain detachment or indifference to life and to things that would make most children happy, but Gloria stifled her concern; she had a child and she would love Suubi no matter what. And even when Suubi decided to move to America to ‘discover new things’ as she’d quietly put it, Gloria prayed over her every night. Now she had to face reality. Maybe she had failed her child. Her Suubi was bruised and beaten beyond recognition. Gloria closed her eyes to hold back angry tears and willed herself away from the Michigan cold back to her bed in Uganda. Any moment now those birds would fill the air and sky with demands for their children and Gloria would wake up from this nightmare.
When no such jolt came, Gloria reluctantly let the events of the past 48 hours tiptoe back into her mind starting with the dream. Yesterday she had woken up at 4am with a start and the numbing feeling of frostbite tap dancing on her chest. She had been dreaming, she realized. But her racing heart told her that it was probably a nightmare. The images from her dream were already dissolving in the grogginess of her mind, but one freeze frame clung to her with the determination of someone resigned to one last act before death. A nauseating image of her daughter, at least, she thought it was her daughter. This version of her had a gash on her forehead. Dream Suubi had a broken nose and was grinning through an incomplete set of bloody teeth, nothing like the neat gleaming row of teeth that were the result of years of braces Gloria had paid for. Dream Suubi’s eyes were burning, sunken into the face of someone otherwise not far from death. Those eyes and the bitter cold she felt on her fingertips were on her mind right before she was yanked back to wakefulness. The image was both frightening to behold and familiar all at once. It made no sense.
She had tried to shake the feeling of dread and head back to sleep, but she couldn’t. She felt foolish for doing so, but she decided to dial Suubi’s phone number just to see that she was alright. Ring ring. No answer. She tried again. When she’d almost given up when a shaky voice picked up. Suubi was quiet at first, just breathing heavily. Then she started speaking rapidly, slurring her speech slightly, and she kept cutting out due to a faltering Whatsapp connection. Five hours later, Gloria was on the next Ethiopian Airways flight for New York.
As Suubi stood beaten and bruised in the motel bathroom, she remembered the first day she’d met Walter. At the time, Suubi was still not used to America even after two years. She had mastered faking the accent, but the people had remained confusing. Americans, especially White Americans, especially those in the midwest, thought she was a downright miracle. They’d called her exceptional, talented and impressive in the patronizing way they thought it was improbable that an African could be so well read. They couldn’t even bother to remember the difference between Ghana and Uganda, but constantly cooed after her. Goodness, you’re so articulate! Where did you learn to speak like that? It’s like they’d never heard of colonization. Although based on what she was learning about their squalor education system they may well have never heard of it. She wasted precious little energy giving a damn though, given that they could never take the extra 5 seconds to learn how to say her name.
She remembered her first day of work at the call center, when her manager had looked down at her name quizzically and ventured… “Uh…Suh-bee? Soo-bye?” But before Suubi could squeeze in her usual correction, she’d said “Geez, I’m sorry, can we just call you Susan? It might be easier for everyone you talk to on the phone too.” She sounded impatient and didn’t bother to feign the usual mid-western embarrassment. For reasons Suubi couldn’t explain, she’d plastered on a disingenuous smile and chirped “Sure! Lots of people call me Susan,” and then proceeded to spend the next few months selling insurance to people in West Michigan named Van Dijk or Meijer or Beenhouwer. The bitter irony swirled around like bile in the pit of her stomach.
But one gets lonely after two years. So she’d gone to a bar down the street from her apartment late one night, sat in a corner and watched people come in and out and she ordered martini after martini. On her third martini, in walked Walter; pale skin, blue eyes and a close cropped shave. He’d ordered a gibson, which to her drunk delight looked exactly like her martini except his olive was now an onion. She’d watched as he finished his drink and ordered another, before downing the rest of hers and walking up to him. One thing she had learned about America is that walking up to a man in a bar was pretty much an open invitation to sex. Even if she had posessed the wherewithall to flirt, which she she did not, most men here were disturbingly all too eager to fuck the tall African girl, relinquishing her from the obligation of trying to be charming.
“Hello,” she’d said, lightly touching his arm. That’s all it had taken. Small talk had not been necessary and before she knew it, the two were back at her apartment. He’d mechanically taken his clothes off and as he violently thrust into her from the back, she briefly wondered why she letting a man whose breath smelled of onions fuck her. He gripped both hands around her throat painfully as he came, then pulled out, not bothering to check if she was done as well, and unceremoniously fell asleep. It happened the next night and the night after that, and without any conversation about it, he’d started introducing her to people as his African girlfriend (did he even know what country she was from?) They’d all oooh’d and aaah’d at her like apes. The two never had sex facing each other, and while she knew that this should have troubled her, it hadn’t. Not really.
Walter hated her but loved to fuck her. He’d hated her clothes, hated her job, hated how her ground nut stew smelled, hated her apartment (even though he had swiftly given up his own lease soon after they met.) She knew that they were a match made in hell, if hell was the freezing Michigan tundra. But she hadn’t cared. She met his insistence that she share her location with him with a cool indifference. His hot-headed outbursts at parties when she strayed far enough to talk to other people didn’t faze her. Perhaps they should have. After all, one could only flirt with fire for so long before they got scorched.
Now Suubi squinted at herself in the motel bathroom mirror and she thought about the previous night. She had woken up that morning hungry, nauseous and alone. Walter hadn’t been home since Saturday, and in her hungover state, she didn’t care to dwell on it. The quiet was nice, even as the nausea persisted. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon, as she was scrolling past birthday posts to a distant friend that she remembered what date it was. Fuck.
Suubi pulled herself back to the bathroom. She had never been so exhausted in her life. She cocked their head gingerly to the right, and as the fluorescent bathroom light shone sterilely over her body, she watched the reflection with fatigue as she got ready to shower. There was a lot to take in, starting with the long gash on the left side of her head above her ear that had now crusted over with blood. Her cheekbones were now patches of navy blue, like an amature clown that had forgotten what color blush to use. Gone were her perfectly manicured nails and in their place were short cracked fingernails with blood and filth caked beneath them.
Finally she took in the thin film of sweat that clung to every visible part of her. She must have been running a fever because they started to shiver almost immediately. Suubi cursed the Michigan winter. As her teeth clattered into each other inside a swollen mouth, she felt small grains of gravel move around inside their mouth. She leaned over the sink and spit. It was a minor miracle she hadn’t broken more teeth. Her jaw, probably fractured judging by the amount of swelling, disagreed. With her mouth slightly ajar, looking into it felt like staring into a cave that had just emerged from a receding tide of blood.
She should have seen this coming. Perhaps she had seen it coming and had welcomed it subconsciously. Self loathing was funny like that. She thought back to her limp body lying in a pool of her own blood at the entrance of the bar. Suubi, she’d scoffed, groaning as she rolled over. What on earth had her mother been so hopeful about when she named her Suubi. Hope had always been in limited supply as far as Suubi was concerned. Her whole life it had seemed like a cruel joke God was playing when He had decided to make room in the world for her to exist. Suubi. Hope. Yeah, right. For Suubi, unlike most people, such notions did not hold the semi permanence of fleeting thought, like intriguing one liners from a movie. Instead, they silently hammered nails into the corners of her eyes and pitched their tents. Which is why it made sense that of all the men in all of Detroit, she had come across Walter. Ah, she’d thought to herself as she picked fragments of her teeth out of the gravel. Perhaps he is what I deserve.
She wasn’t shocked that Walter had beaten her to a pulp outside a bar when she mentioned she thought she might be pregnant. She had sensed that he was capable of inexplicable rage leagues beyond her imagination. She wasn’t even shocked that after bystanders had pulled him off her, he had just left her right there for dead. What surprised her was her mother calling, concerned about a dream she had had, as Suubi lay there in the alley behind the bar. Her dear mother who, for all her faults, had loved her since the day she’d met her in that orphanage. Her mother, whose requests for Suubi to come back and visit had been rebuffed. Her mother who, in the face of Suubi’s obstinance, had still begged her in vain to go to a hospital. Who then booked the next flight to see her immediately despite Suubi’s slurred protests outside the bar. Suubi’s throat tightened as she thought about how undeserving she was of Gloria, but she pushed the feelings down. There was no need, no utility, in shame and humiliation clinging to her like the cigarette smoke she had all been wafting through in the bar last night.
She stepped out of the shower half an hour later, clean but visibly swollen all over her body. Both women stared at each other, a tide of history licking at their frigid ankles before receding. Gloria winced at the brief prick of envy, before swiftly denying its existence to begin with. But why Suubi’s womb? its whispers echoed. Why not yours? Suubi knew what she looked like to her mother, and she couldn’t decide whether to take pity on her own appearance, or pride in her survival. She shook the thought from her head, then took four steps forward into her mothers arms. Pity or pride were inconsequential right now. She was pregnant, and for once in her life, she needed to be hopeful.
Mimi Mutesa is a writer, photographer, and recovering podcast producer, currently taking time off after having covered US politics in Washington DC. She now lives in Uganda with her husband, their new puppy Van Dam, and her countless potted plants.