Love of a Fat Woman

Chika Unigwe

Artwork by Ellen Blom

When Godwin came home with his wife, his sisters hid their faces behind their hands and laughed. They said hello to their new sister-in-law and told her they were happy to meet her but he could see the laughter bubbling underneath like a boil about to burst. Godwin had told them on the phone that she was not beautiful, but he had said nothing about her corpulence or that she smoked like a man and had teeth that looked like fingernails.

Could you not find anyone better? his mother asked him later that night while the new wife slept in the bedroom Adaku and Oyilinneya had vacated on their mother's orders. Her snoring was deep and rhythmic, as if it were keeping count to some unheard music.

She grunts like a pig, he said. Sometimes at night I sleep on the sofa because her snoring keeps me awake.

The mother looked at him and shook her head slowly from side to side. He knew she pitied him.

If she grew her hair, she might look better, his mother said.

Perhaps, Godwin agreed, rubbing his palms together, but I did not marry her for her looks.

Yes, the mother agreed, but even then...She sighed. Then she said, How do I show her off to the other women, eh?

You do not have to show her off at all, Godwin snapped. Did anybody think he was happy with the way things were? Some men liked a bit of flesh, something to hold on to, but the padding on his wife suffocated him. When they made love, as needs must, he felt claustrophobic. She looks like a whale naked, he thought, and this thought made him snort out a little laughter, but he would not say why he laughed when his mother asked him. There were things one did not share with one's mother.

She looked annoyed, so to placate her he said, I'll marry a nice woman for you. A woman who will give you lots of grandchildren. He had rung his ex, Kate, last night, and she had been excited to hear from him. No, she was not yet married. If she was still as beautiful as he remembered, he would ask her to wait for him.

His mother smiled and asked, When? When will you marry a proper wife?

When this is all over, he said, waving a hand over the deep red couches of his mother's sitting room as if they were the "this" he meant.

He remembered ordering the furniture earlier that day. The power it had given him to walk into a showroom and point them out to the salesman. And then have them brought home on the back of a truck. His mother had waited at the door, taking in the congratulations of the neighbors who had all trooped out to watch the men from the furniture shop unload the chairs—still covered in plastic—and carry them one at a time into the sitting room on the first floor. Then she followed them in and told them where to place them. No, thank you, the plastic wrapping could stay.

The plastic sheeting squeaked with every movement but it did not bother his mother. But it bothered Godwin enough to ask her how long she was going to leave them on for.

My first set of new furniture in over thirty years, and you think I am in a hurry to tear the plastic off? Biko, leave me, let me enjoy seeing them like this!

Whatever he did, he did for his mother. She was uppermost in his mind that first night at the club in Antwerp when he smiled back at the first white girl to smile at him. She was not his type, but he could see the potential in her. If he played his cards right, she could help him become the sort of man he had dreamed of being: the sort of man who could finally repay his mother for the years of sacrifice and send her off on an early retirement from her petty trading, which no longer brought in as much as it used to in the days when things were better. And even then it had not brought in nearly enough. With three mouths to feed and a husband disposed of by cholera, his mother had never stopped to rest. It thrilled him now to see her sit on the couch, her legs spread out in front of her, twirling a brand-new purse in her hands. Tine had chosen the purse herself, her present for "mijn schoon mama!"

Godwin had no sharp recollection of his father. That is to say that what he remembered was vague, a liquid shadow as if seen through the rain, walking out of the door every morning with a battered briefcase and a bowler hat on his head. Both the briefcase and the bowler hat had been kept for him, preserved in a paper bag on top of the clothes cupboard in his mother's bedroom. When he was younger, not too young to be scared by the thought of wearing a dead man's hat, but young enough to be sentimental about his meager inheritance, he would climb onto a chair to reach the top of the cupboard, bring down the paperback, and, burying his head in the hat, he would take in huge gulps of his father's scent. The memory warmed him and he felt happiness like molten lava flow through his veins. He smiled.

What are you smiling at? his mother asked.

Just happy to be home, he replied.


He had not expected to miss Nigeria when he left. First to Cyprus, because it was easier to get into, and cheaper, and he had been promised by the agent that he would be able to work on a farm. He had indeed worked for a sturdy farmer whose name he could not pronounce. He was worked like a horse. But he was fed. And he had a roof over his head under which to dream. He had made his way from Cyprus, first to Spain and then to Belgium, where he was determined to become legal. He was tired of looking over his shoulders wondering when he would be caught and deported. He went into clubs that would let him in without an ID and smiled into the faces of young girls who mainly ignored him or scowled back at him. When he met Tine, he held on to her. She was his passport.

When she whispered her fears to him at night, that she was fat, needed to lose weight to keep his love, he touched her breasts and told her with a lump in his throat that he had never fallen for skinny girls. I like my women with fat on them, baby, and you are just perfect. Lying was easy if you kept your eye on the goal. He tickled her and made her laugh and swore that she was prettier than her friend, Els, with the slim waist and long legs and who always wore tiny shorts. At night when he squeezed Tine's buttocks and made her gasp with joy, he imagined it was Els lying underneath him. Els had been with Tine the night Godwin met Tine, but Els in her silver studded micro miniskirt had not even spared him a glance. He had spent all night ogling her and feeling some pity for the less attractive short-haired girl with her. But life never gives one what one wants because Tine had caught him staring and Tine had smiled at him. She liked to hear him tell his version of how they met. I could not keep my eyes off you, he told Tine. And what was the first thing you said to me? Tine asked, relishing in this game.

I asked you if it had hurt when you fell from heaven, because for sure you were an angel.

It was a cheesy line, he knew it but he could not think of anything better and it had sent Tine into shrieks of delightful laughter. She looked almost pretty when she laughed, eyes shining and mouth spread wide.

And that was the beginning of their love affair. He asked her to marry him within three months, and even though she said she was young, and it was too soon and shouldn't they get to know each other better?, she accepted and threw herself into preparing for the wedding, harassing city officials who questioned Godwin's motives and handling the rigmarole of the marriage process until the road was cleared and they could marry. She danced at the wedding—which set him back a fair bit—like a whirlwind and insisted that it was the very best day of her life. It was the best day of his too. He had a marriage certificate, a six-month residence permit and a whole life of legalized stay in Europe ahead of him. He counted the days until he got a five-year permit and was now counting the days until he got his Belgian nationality and it would be thank you and bye-bye to Tine. Sometimes, not often, he felt a twinge of guilt, but, really, what was he doing wrong? It wasn't like she was not getting anything out of it. He was giving her a huge ego boost. Really, it was a fair deal.

It was not part of the deal to come back to Nigeria so soon on holiday. He would have preferred to save the money, although now that he was here, he was glad he had agreed to bring Tine back to show her his family and Enugu, the city of his birth. She had begged and begged all year, and it was not like he had a choice. He had to keep her sweet until he got what he wanted. So here they were, his mother asking if Tine was the best he could do and his younger sisters giggling behind her back, mimicking her waddle and her cigarette smoking. He had to remind them that had he waited until he found Miss Belgium, he might have been found out and deported and then where would they all be, eh? That killed the giggles. He loved his sisters, Adaku and Oyilinneya. Fifteen and beautiful, he knew they would have no problem getting good husbands when the time came. He was giving them a good education, providing them with a comfortable home, they did not have to hawk bread like he did to help make ends meet. After everything he had been through, he was entitled to a break.

Tine was hardworking and thrifty. She worked as a nurse in an old people's home and rarely spent money on herself. She encouraged him to save, adding her salary to what he earned working in a factory so that they could build up a fortune for whatever children they would have. She was careful where she shopped, carefully cutting out supermarket reduction coupons from newspapers. She rarely went drinking with her friends because she preferred to stay with him, and anyway it was a waste of money. He was grateful, he really was, but gratitude could never mutate to love for someone you did not even find appealing. He could not stand the way her stomach wobbled like jelly when she undressed. And he could not stand the sight of her in the suspenders and lacy lingerie he had bought for her on Valentine's Day telling her she would be a knockout in them (and assuring her when she tried them on shyly that she was the sexiest woman alive, move over, Angelina Jolie!).


She had been happy for him to withdraw all the money he said they would need in Nigeria from their joint account. She trusted him to spend it well. Her only excess was the wedding. She had told him she wanted a Nigerian wedding. My big fat Nigerian wedding, she said. And she had not contributed a cent to it because one of their Nigerian friends had told her that in Nigeria, it was the man's duty to foot the wedding bill. And so he had. He was lucky. He knew it. Some other men married women who monitored them, and who kept separate accounts and yet insisted on their husbands treating them to expensive gifts.


The days in Enugu moved languidly. Tine asked to see the city and Godwin took her to the new burger and pizza joints his sisters spoke about and where he was sure not to run into anyone who knew him. They took his sisters along, and the girls enjoyed their pizza despite Godwin saying that the pizza was nothing but stew on bread, and nothing at all like the pizzas of Europe. Tine smoked and asked if they could not go anywhere more "authentic." When she complained that his sisters hardly spoke to her, he said it was because they were shy. When she complained of his mother not exchanging a word with her—She seems almost uncomfortable in my presence, she said—Godwin told her that it was because she spoke no English. Tine said she could not wait to go back to Belgium; the vacation was not like she had expected. Godwin did not dispute that. She moved around listlessly, smoking on the balcony, complaining of the heat and retiring to the bedroom to sleep long before anyone else went to bed.

The second week of their stay—halfway into the vacation—Godwin's grandmother arrived from the village smelling of the earth and carrying a sack of almonds and pears dirtied with sand. She wore thick glasses and asked in a loud voice for "the new wife!" She had not been told that Tine was not a real wife, just a woman Godwin had married to get his papers in order, and now Godwin felt guilty at her enthusiasm. He sent for Tine, who came out of the room in a baby pink dress with no sleeves; her face and arms flushed pink and put Godwin in mind of a giant pig. Mijn Oma, Godwin said dully, introducing his grandmother to Tine. Tine mumbled hello, but the old woman spread her arms and made rapid movements like a bird flapping its wings. Tine stood where she was, looking into the woman's face, unsure of what was expected of her. Godwin's grandmother took the few steps needed to bridge the gap between them and hugged Tine. She held her and spoke Igbo into her ears, words that Tine could make no sense of but whose warmth brought tears to her eyes. She let go of Tine, smiled at the room, and said, Ah, our Godwin has brought us back a real woman! A beautiful woman. Her skin shines like a polished wall. She looks well fed, Godwin. When I heard you married an oyibo woman, I was afraid that you'd married a woman like the ones they show us in magazines, thin thin like chewing stick. This one is beautiful, Godwin. And her eyes tell me that she is a good one.

She handed the sack of fruit to Adaku for them to be washed and asked that a plate of almonds be brought to the sitting room. She was going to sit down and eat them with her new granddaughter.

For the rest of the day, she sat with Tine in the sitting room, eating almonds dripping with water. The grandmother spoke in Igbo and Tine spoke in Dutch and they both laughed that they could not understand each other; and when the grandmother pointed to the plastic sheet on the sofa they were sitting on and mimicked with her hands the act of tearing it up, Tine laughed and her laughter rang like a bell and at that moment Godwin felt a stirring in him that he thought might be the beginning of love.