The quietness of the neighborhood, once one the things he liked the most about the location of the house, now weighed on Max's spirit. It was 4pm and he had just finished a twelve hour shift. Bloomfeld-Hyman Pediatric Surgical Center where he worked was located in Chicago's downtown area. This meant that there was always noise, if not from the busy hospital, then from the bustling city in which it was located. He was never alone with his thoughts when he was at work, which was good, because his thoughts were not the best company these days. When he returned home, however, it was an exercise in creativity to avoid them. He had worked out; pounding out miles on the treadmill in the basement until he was weak with exhaustion, and then lifted weights to further seal the deal. After a warm shower, he'd lain down, hoping to fall asleep. But the silence of the house and its surroundings, instead of providing peace, hung like an ominous cloud which would rain down unwanted thoughts and reflections. The silence was almost passive aggressive, like the religious fanatic aunt who obviously disapproved of some aspect of your lifestyle but instead of talking to you about it, gave you the silent treatment, accompanied by baleful looks which eventually pushed you to confront her, after which she spoke non stop, quoting the bible copiously.
Max chuckled at that image, rolling over to press his face into the pillow. Anything to keep his thoughts at bay. They overwhelmed him and made him feel out of control. It was not a feeling he enjoyed. He made himself think about the scripture this imaginary aunt would quote if she was present to comment on his predicament. Would she advocate a divorce? Sexual immorality was the only reason provided in the New Testament to justify a divorce and there had been enough of that between him and Iya. Perhaps she would encourage them to work things out, just as his mother had. Max cringed as he thought about the conversation he'd had with his parents the day before. When he'd come out of surgery and seen the missed call from his mother, he had known with absolute certainty that the news of his alleged activities had reached her ears.
As it turned out, some enterprising soul had posted pictures of the recent scholarship award ceremony he and Iya had attended, to Fako Nation, the Facebook group maintained by Bakweri people at home and in the diaspora. Underneath a picture of him, a member had made an innocuous comment about the need to show respect for the trailblazers in the community, referencing Joan's behavior at the ceremony and the subsequent rumors she'd started with her claims. That had devolved into a heated debate with people siding with Joan and others with him. A cousin of his in Limbe had been showing his mother the pictures on his phone and they had wondered why there were so many comments underneath that particular picture.
When he had called her back, his mother, never one to beat around the bush had asked him directly if he had cheated on Iya. He had confessed, unable to lie to her.
"Max," she had said, her voice stern with censure "I know the son I raised and I know that I raised an honorable man. So, please explain to me why I feel like I am talking to a stranger right now. I have you on speakerphone and your father is here. "
Seated in his car, in the parking lot of the hospital, he had told his parents the whole story, starting with what had happened to Iya at Cornell, up until his last conversation with Mabel. When he finished their stunned silence had reverberated across the thousands of miles. The silence had continued for a couple of minutes then he'd heard sniffling and his mother's muffled voice. They had obviously taken him off speaker phone. His father murmured something in return causing his mother to snap something at him. Then his father's voice, clearer than what speaker phone would allow, gentle with concern.
"Are you OK, son?"
"I'll be lying if I said I am fine, daddy."
"Your...er.. your mother says she will talk to you later."
Another awkward silence ensued.
"Is Iya alright?"
"I honestly don't know, daddy. We mostly avoid each other these days when she is in town. She's been travelling for work and spends more time in New York."
"With him," his father stated.
"Yes. With him"
More silence. In the background, Max could hear the opening jingle for Luncheon Date, the afternoon news program broadcast on Cameroon's national radio network. His father listened to it religiously. He could picture him now, seated in their modestly furnished living room, waiting for his lunch.
"So, what are you planning to do?"
"I honestly do not know, daddy."
"Do you still want to be married to her?"
"She's my wife. The only woman I have ever loved in my life. My best friend."
"Is she or was she?"
His father's question had hung unanswered between them. When his father had realized no answer was forthcoming, he had pressed on.
"And this other woman, your colleague. What do you plan to do about her?"
Max sighed again.
"I don't know..."
"Maxwell, everyone makes mistakes in life. Allowing those mistakes to perpetuate, is another matter. Do not let you and Iya's problems turn you into a man you will not be proud of becoming."
"Daddy, it's complicated."
"It certainly sounds complicated and it will only get more complicated the longer you allow this to continue."
Silence stretched between them again.
"Things were once...complicated between your mother and I."
His father's quietly spoken words had stunned Max.
"You must have been around 3 years old. It was during the time I worked in Yaounde. Being away from your mother was hard... I was young and stupid. Which really is no excuse but it really is the only reason." Godfrey Litumbe heaved a deep sigh of his own. "For the two years I was there," he continued "I had someone. One of the secretaries at the Ministry. I tried to be discreet about it but your mother eventually found out. By that time the girl was pregnant. She thought I would leave your mother for her, since she was pregnant. I may have led her to believe that too. I was that selfish. But in the end I couldn't. I told her she could have the baby and I would take care of it and her, but that I would not leave my wife and family. She was about six months pregnant by then. She tried to commit an abortion and bled to death. The baby didn't make it either."
"Oh my God...daddy..." Max muttered, his heart pounding in his chest. His father had always been his hero. A role model he felt he could always count on to do the right thing. This was the very last thing he expected to hear.
"Knowing the way pregnant and unmarried women are treated and still telling that woman that I was not going to leave my wife and marry her, was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. But I did it because it was the right thing to do. Your mother deserved better. You deserved better. After that episode, your mother and I almost divorced, anyway. She felt betrayed and rightly so. But we decided to work on it. We communicated better, our marriage got better."
There was another pause. Then his father continued.
"I don't know what the right thing to do is in your case. I wish I did, but I don't. I'd love for you and Iya to work on things but you best know what is and isn't possible. What I do know is that this current state of confusion is not the right one. You and Iya are adults. You answer to no one but yourselves and your consciences, ultimately."
His mother had called him a couple of hours later.
"You spoke with your father?" Her voice had sounded strained.
"I did, mum."
"I didn't want him after that mad girl killed that poor baby." She continued. "His hands were stained by the most innocent of blood. I wanted to take you and just go back to my parents. But I had to remember that underneath that ugly stranger, there was the man I had married. The Godfrey Litumbe who had made me the happiest girl in Limbe when he asked me to marry him. Just as I have to remember that underneath the ugly story you just told me, is the innocent and brilliant girl I know to be Iya Malafa. The girl you married with my blessing. I have to remember also, that the man who took a woman to his bed, a woman he had no intention of staying with, a woman who became a convenience, I have to remember that this man is my own son."
"Mummy..." Max had begun to speak but she had cut him off.
"You sit quiet and listen to me, Maxwell. My heart is broken. Broken for Iya, broken for you. But broken things can be fixed if the person who breaks them wants them to be fixed. Whatever your decision, please remember that broken things can be fixed."
That had ended that conversation.
He had known he had to talk to Mabel. He had to come clean, tell her he could not give her any of the things she wanted, not because he was going back to Iya, but because he didn't love her enough. She had been ignoring his calls and texts so he'd made his way over to her floor after his shift ended. Marcia had given him an odd look when he entered the suite.
"Don't tell me you miss me so much you plan to keep coming around here to bless us with your good looking behind." There was a mocking note in her thick southern accent.
Max had smiled as charmingly as he could manage.
"Marcia, you know you are and have always been the only reason I come around these parts."
"Mmm hmmm." she'd huffed with a neck and eye roll. "Well, your other reason is on vacation now, but she ain't returnin'. Word is she didn't renew her contract when it came up for review last week. I'd have thought you would know, y'all being from the same country and all. I thought you was all close."
Max had only stared at her in shock. She'd stared back at him unfazed, then given a pointed look at the wedding ring he still wore. With a raised eyebrow, she'd lifted the mug of tea she always had available, sipped from it and turned her gaze to her computer screen. Seconds later, she was tapping away.
He'd been dismissed.
Mabel was gone and Marcia, the only person who could have told him where to find her, was angry.
A soft footstep interrupted his thoughts. He looked up from the bed and Iya stood in the doorway of their bedroom. He'd been so lost in his thoughts he hadn't heard her enter the house. Her overnight bag lay at her feet and she clutched a big envelope in a grip so tight, he could see the tendons in her hand from where he lay. She looked pale and tired. She was supposed to be in New York for the next couple of days for a meeting. At least that is what her calendar which she had synchronized with his, so they both knew what the other was doing, had said. What was she doing back so early?
"I left Morrison and Roth."
She blurted the statement out, as if to answer his question.
"I'm going to press charges against Kyle Hammond." She walked towards him and held out the envelope. "These are the results from my rape kit. Kyle's mother tried to destroy them but Sebastian got them before she could." He didn't take the envelop so she stood there holding it between them. "I thought you should know before I contact the police and a private investigator. Kyle admitted to raping other women but none of them have come forward. I'm going to try to find them and see if I can convince them to testify."
He still had not taken the envelope so she placed it on the bed.
"I'm willing to wait if you want to get divorce and dissociate yourself from me before things get nasty. But I am doing this."