On Christmas night, my husband woke up from his Hennessy stupor and football games on TV and took me to our friend David’s house for Christmas. I had a very pleasant time there because I sat next to David’s father at the table and had a full view of the kitchen and living room that were inhabited by many of his relatives.
I have learned since I got married that skin color itself is not a culture. As an American, I have had a rather skewed and limited view of race. Meeting so many Africans from different nations has exposed me to a deeper way of looking at people. I can no longer say “black people…” in general because I have experienced so many different cultures and individuals from all over Africa. Color is such a small part since everyone has color.
David and his father have made their wealth in California by taking full advantage of the real estate market. Instead, David’s father told me that there are no mortgages in Uganda. He told me that with $20,000 I or anyone could go to Uganda, build a house in the country and live off the land. This immediately created the germ of a fantasy in my mind.
This image of abundance was fueled by the easy grace this family had with each other and the guests they welcomed into their home for Christmas. David’s sister welcomed the new children born this year who were living their first Christmas. We applauded them and paid special attention to make it memorable. A beautiful woman was asked to pray and she led us all in a powerful prayer that she dedicated the occasion to Jesus Christ because it is her birthday and asked for her blessing on the meal.
The food was not a flashy affair, as I would have imagined a typical wealthy American family would present. Instead, it was a luxurious feast of simplicity. Each person had as much as they wanted. There was so much food that not even the sixty people who attended could finish it. There was kale, yellow squash, chicken stew, cassava (which I tried for the first time), lentils, beans, peas, plain yogurt, plantain, biscuits, pork, brussels sprouts, long grain rice with vegetables, and a cake of fruits ice cream
My husband, watching the football game, growled at me to bring him a plate. But since he was sitting next to David’s father and enjoying the conversations of the people who loved both this man and his patriarch, he didn’t want to give up my seat.
I eat certain things with my hands, like bone-in chicken and hamburgers. I admit that when I am alone I eat any type of food with my hands. In college, while working as a dancer named Sheba, I met the University Medical Center’s youngest resident, a tall and talented Ethiopian named Ted. He cooked for me and took me to eat at Zemam’s in Tucson, Arizona, on Broadway. Ethiopian food has a special flatbread with which other foods are collected. So I’m used to the idea of eating with my hands. Nigerian meals often include a doughy, uncooked “bread” eaten with the hand. But before last night she had never seen another woman eat all of her food with her bare hands. He was very liberating. For a moment I realized how many complexes I have about the simple human experience of eating. He lifted handfuls of food to his mouth with grace and joy. He took pieces of food from his father’s plate. When other plates were being cleared, he would return them to the table if they had a meal he liked. Although it was quite round.
I could have stayed up all night absorbing the faces of beautiful children alternately pulling their mothers and then their fathers. I looked at the newborn baby, a boy just six days old with his first soft wavy hair. The young women were so well dressed, enviably slim with flawless skin and impeccable braids and fabrics. Some people looked like Ted Gedebou, tall, thin, with dark eyes and sharp profiles. Other people had Asian flat eyelids even though they were obviously African. The youngsters clustered around the beer cooler and the older singles had apparently serious conversations at the bar while sipping on their hard liquor.
Men and women with small children did not drink and left early. I was disappointed when my husband declared it was time for us to leave too. My husband and David walked out ahead of me trying to talk business without me. They were talking about us buying one of David’s houses. My husband was lying to David, acting like the deal was already in place. His eyes were rolling and he was laughing, his hyena laughed. There was a group of men my age on the porch dressed in velvet jackets and designer shirts. They stole those few moments of my husband’s pretense at the business to beg me to stay, which made me blush. I stammered, “The car is parked in red,” and jogged away from the voices of him saying, “Let it go. Stay.”
My husband yelled at me on the way home when I asked him about possibly buying a house. “Let me think, bitch. I’ll never make a decision that’s bad for us.” He’s trying to assert his masculinity because he was intimidated by David, maybe. I don’t know. I didn’t care about him. I had seeds of abundance planted in my imagination. A million dreams of Africa, love and family filled my consciousness. I opened the window and saw the moon like the smile of the Cheshire cat and then I started laughing at my husband. I laughed loud and long in a forced laugh.
I feel deflated when I think of myself laughing at someone else like that. I’m not a hysterical hyena. I am a lioness. Scavenger hyenas. The lionesses reign in abundance and strength. I promised myself that I would never use that foolish tactic to protect myself in the future. I will remain calm in the face of his rude swearing, his rude insults, his cruel belittlement because now he will make this brief time with him more bearable and free me from any guilt when I leave him.
After all, I can control the words I say despite the rush of fear when he curses me. He really he is cursing his ex-wives, his ex-girlfriends who betrayed him and crushed his ego. He has nothing to do with me. But I can’t control the shudder that makes me jump six feet back every time he tries to touch me.
Current reading: The soul of a new kitchen: a discovery of the foods and flavors of Africa
by Marcus Samuelson
December 26, 2006 – Tuesday