The following is a work of fiction.
Hadiz has just snacked on some pancakes. She will have preferred, though, to have eaten with her dear husband, Nasri. But Nasri has coronavirus, although he will not call it that. He prefers to call the virus by its official name — COVID-19. Nasri likes to behave this way: seize opportunities to show he’s always been an academic star, an intellectual. Now a governor, he likes to think of himself as one of the best around. A person of his stature should call things by their official names.
Hadiz is an artist, a writer, so she allows herself relax rules here and there, strip things to their essence, so she can create and recreate new things. Today, though, as it has been for two weeks now, she’s been unable to put words together, add more paragraphs to the new novel she’s been working on. There’s so much anxiety about, coronavirus-engineered anxiety, especially since Nasri caught the virus. How can one pretend to be invested in writing a novel when the world is wriggling out of control. And so Hadiz has been spending more time away from her laptop in which her manuscript now languishes; she’s been spending more time on Twitter, running a pet project, an online language class.
“Nas,” she walks out to say to Nasri, who’s lounging on a leather bed in the front yard, under a pride of Barbados plant, which, with the recent irregular April rain, is starting to bloom. It hasn’t rained today, though; it’s a hot evening in the city. And Hadiz is standing six feet away from Nasri.
“Nas?” she says again to Nasri, who, under the effect of the heat, is starting to snooze, “I think I’ll go inside now to conduct today’s class.”
Nasri nods, too tired to think of a response.
Of course, Nasri misses Twitter, an old battlefield of his, where he’s, most times in the past, let himself lose and be as vicious as he can be. He’s seen people write that that fiendishness is not an online persona. That it is him, Nasri, his true personality. He has never responded to these claims. He does not need to. Because, well, he’s now a governor. They have nothing on him, these online rascals!
Hadiz lies in bed, props her back on a pillow. Her bedroom is painted a creamy white, spotless, except for a huge mural of Toni Morrison, which she’s had painted close to the door. She loves Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison was everything she hopes to one day be: a successful writer who is also a powerful cultural force.
The air conditioner hums steadily. The soft scent of lavender wafts about her bedroom, as she plugs her phone to the power socket by her bed, then logs on Twitter.
She’s about to start her online class for the day to her teeming followers of several thousand when she starts to receive a barrage of notifications.
At first, she’s confused. She’s not tweeted anything lately, anything that has gone viral, anything that should warrant this slew of notifications. A little apprehensive, she clicks on the little bell, the icon of notifications, and she discovers that it has nothing to do with any of her tweets, but those of her son’s, Bellow’s.
She leans towards the stool by the bed, lifts a glass of wine, drinks, replaces the glass on the stool. The nail polish she’s wearing is starting to fade, she discovers. She will have to get Meimunat over to redo them. A lockdown does not mean she should not look her best — she’s an artist and a governor’s wife!
Anyway, back to Bellow.
She reads tweets after tweet, screenshot message after screenshot message. Apparently, Bellow has been in an online fight with a Twitter User, and, while at it, Bellow sexualized this person’s mother and then threatened to pass the woman to his friends.
Now, outraged Twitter users are tweeting at Hadiz, mother of Bellow, governor’s wife, artist, the one who has written a book that touches on our shared humanity — they are tweeting at her to, at the very least, bear witness to her rampaging son, but also – and this they hope – caution her son.
Hadiz sips again at the glass of wine, logs off Twitter.
When her children were younger, Hadiz always tried to reign them in as often as she could, prune whatever excesses their father had allowed to grow on them, but these excesses would not stop growing every day. Nasri allowed them to grow. He relished the growths. He watered them. Nasri wanted children who were fearless, who were unafraid of danger, who, in fact, frightened off danger with a stare. Hadiz, on the other hand, wanted a balance. She recognized the virtues of boldness but had also realized how the need to be bold, if not managed, could breed, especially in growing children, a predisposition to insensitivity. A willingness to dismiss people, to talk down on people, to take out your superior power on them — and then call it boldness.
With the girls, Hadiz succeeded. With the boys, it was a different matter. Nasri said the boys were his. He would raise them as he saw fit. They would be a replica of him.
Over the years, Hadiz has seen the boys – not only Bellow, but The Other One, too – get into avoidable situations that embarrassed her. She, has, many times, sat by and watched her sons, barely stopping herself from crying. But like every mother, she has learnt how to stand up for her sons. A mother does not send away her son, no matter how much shit he’s covered himself with. These days, she no longer phones them to ask if they did as they’ve been alleged to have done. She moves, swiftly, into the realm of damage control. She has become their Public Relations Officer. Having a talented writer as a mother should have it uses, although she’s never mentioned how it marginalizes her talent.
She logs back on Twitter, decides to tweet in response to the allegation that her son threatened to rape the mother of the Twitter User he was in a quarrel with.
She, as delicately as she can, says that she will prefer not to be talked to about her son. She suggests that whoever gets into a fight should expect to be punched. In other words, if you criticize her son, you should expect a pushback from him, even if in pushing back, he sexualizes your mother and threatens to pass her on to his friends.
Hadiz says that she does not see any threat of rape in what her son has said, for she will never condone that. She does not say though if she approves of her son’s language. It’s not the kind of talk you get into if your job is public relations.
Of course, she’s happy with herself. She pours another glass of wine, climbs down from bed, gets a hold of a bottle of groundnut from the table close to wardrobe, walks back and starts to eat groundnut. She drinks wine. The air conditioning cools her, cocoons her away from the hot April evening in the city.
Naturally, she expects a pushback. She expects snatches of criticism here and there, but nothing sustained. No one will come at her that passionately, that relentlessly. By the nation’s standards, she now occupies that tier of society – the elders – whose misdemeanors are to be shrugged off, because they’re elders. They are to be respected, not held accountable.
This is why it surprises her when the torrent of criticism doesn’t stop. She receives tens of direct messages from mostly young people, all of them criticizing her for supporting her son, some of them in less-respectful language. Her response: she disables her direct messaging feature so that these people can no longer send her horrible messages.
But then, minutes later, she tweets again, this time, giving the impression that criticism does not bother her; after all, it has become a daily routine, during this lockdown, for bored Twitter users to pick out a popular person and criticize.
Just then, it occurs to her that she’s not spoken to Nasri about this. She wants to rise, walk to the front yard and speak to him about Bellow, but then decides not to. It’s Nasri — she’s bound to get the same typical response.
Suddenly, she feels that the room is getting hotter. The tweets are nearing ten thousand. People are suggesting that she’s failed, as a mother, and that is something she can never deal with — when all she’s ever done has been to stand up for her sons? Why are they suggesting that the panache with which she’s conducted her online presence, so far, has always been false, that underneath all that veneer of sophistication has always been a crude, vile person? Why are they suggesting that her family is disturbed — because all her sons and her husband have always done have been to fight back?
A flurry of calls come in. First, from concerned first ladies. From friends. From all sorts of people. She knows that they’re also calling Nasri, but he will not walk inside to check on her even though he’s now strong enough to do so.
And so when someone tweets at her, asking her to clarify her stand, whether rape is what she thinks is fair, she panics, because, a little frolic on Twitter is one thing, to be in newspapers tomorrow is to put a dent, even if a small one, on her husband’s ambition.
So, she tells the man who’s tweeted at her that when she suggested that if you get into a fight, you should expect to be punched, she had not read her son’s tweet. But if she’d not read it, people ask, what exactly had she seen that she deemed fair? She did say she didn’t find threats of rape, didn’t she? What was that about? Certainly it had to be about something she’d read.
This is not her. This is not her, brilliant Hadiz. This is not her, that she cannot even tell a better lie, a more convincing lie. Has she been wrong to have stood up for her family? Is it a crime to stand up for one’s family? Finally, she picks her phone and calls Bellow, “What have I done to you guys, please? What?” When she drops the call however, she drinks another glass of wine, stands in front of the dressing mirror, coats her lips with a spread of red lipstick, smacks her lips.
Night is coming.
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