Once when the guy I had recently started dating (and would eventually marry) was late to pick me up, I decided I should be angry. I should practice my assertiveness (something I’ve never been very good at) and let him know that I was not going to take that kind of rudeness. That I wasn’t to be taken advantage of. That we needed to start this relationship off on the right foot.
I imagined what I would say when he finally showed up. The non-assertive voice in the back of my head kept popping in to make me doubt myself. Maybe there’s a reason… he’s never been late before… be patient… see what his story is. No, I argued with myself. I’m a feminist. We young women shouldn’t be taking this kind of crap. My friends and I need to demand more respect from men, and here’s a perfect example of what we shouldn’t be putting up with.
Time wore on. Thirty minutes. An hour. I veered back and forth between ‘you should be angry‘ and ‘maybe he’s not interested in you/he’s blowing you off‘ and ‘maybe something happened to him‘. Two hours. Two and a half hours. Three hours. Then a phone call. He’d been detained. Oh….
Then there was the time after we were married. We were living in his country. There was a war going on in the background. We were at the market and had run into an old school friend of his who was very flirtatious. She kept bringing up things they had in common that I hadn’t been around for. She kept touching him on the arm. She was pretty and she had an exotic name. On the one side it was obvious my husband was head over heels for me. On the other, this woman made me feel jealous. She invited us out to her mother’s place for lunch. I didn’t want to go. I knew I would feel out of place and uncomfortable. I made up an excuse to stay home, not saying what I really felt. Come on, my husband said. Come with me. I want you to go. At the last minute, I agreed.
We took a public bus out towards her parents’ home. About 45 minutes outside of the capital, we came across a group of soldiers. A long flatbed military truck was parked off the road with some civilian men and boys sitting in the back. The soldiers stopped our bus. A few of them boarded, guns slung over their shoulders. They glanced around, looking everyone over. The bus was silent. They started pointing: You. You. You. You. Get off the bus, they motioned. One of the people they pointed at was my husband. He got up from beside me. I got up too. No, no, stay there, he said. No, I said. I followed him off the bus, my stomach heavy. What was going to happen?
The soldiers noticed me. No, no. You. Get back on the bus! they told me. I’m with him, I said reaching for his arm and circling mine tight around it. He is my husband.
Oh oh, they said graciously, raising their hands, palms out in front of them in defense. We are very sorry. Excuse us. Excuse us. Sorry, sorry. They directed us away from the group of unlucky boys and men who were not married to me, who didn’t have an excuse for not climbing up into the military truck, who didn’t have a way to get out of being forcibly recruited. Two soldiers walked us back to the side of the main road. One of them stopped the next bus and put my husband and me on it. We went on our way, off to lunch, the incident just a little 10-minute sidetrack for us.
Meanwhile those other sons, brothers, boyfriends, husbands would not be going on their merry way at all. What was it like for their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives when they never arrived for lunch that day? Were the women imagining the assertive things they would say? Were they musing over a reaction, only to realize they were oh so very wrong? When night fell, did they become desperate, looking for their boys and men? How long before they found out what had happened to them? How did that chance bus ride change a family of lives forever?
My husband’s old flirtatious school friend didn’t seem so threatening or important any longer. We rode the rest of the way to her house silent, sitting close, hearts pounding. Hyper aware of what had just almost happened. What if I had stayed home? I have no recollection at all of the actual lunch, that trivial thing that I had been ridiculously concerned about.
There was also the time that I was sitting in a chair in a tidy air-conditioned office, waiting for a job interview. Sitting there in my nice clothes, nervous about the interview, idly chatting with the secretary. While I was there, worrying about the interview, my husband was being held hostage by four heavily armed men out on an empty plantation off the side of a rural highway a couple of hours out of the capital.
It was a random thing. He and some co-workers were coming back from a training session in a community. Four men with automatic weapons stepped out onto the road and told them to halt, probably because they were in a decent looking 4×4. It was a robbery, not anything political or military, just simple post-conflict organized crime. While the robbery progressed, the old man with the machete who guarded the plantation ventured over to see what all the noise was. He was shot. The police happened by. There was a showdown of sorts but everyone came out OK, well, everyone except the old man with the machete.
My husband arrived home on time that night, but shoeless and carrying a small cardboard box. There was a wounded mourning dove in the box that he’d found and brought to give to his mother (she loved birds). His shoes, cheap watch and silver wedding ring had been stolen. It struck me that I’d been calmly sitting in an NGO office, interviewing for a new job while he and several others were sitting in the middle of a field, wondering when they were going to be shot. The whole thing felt surreal. What if we’d left the house angry with each other that morning and things hadn’t turned out OK for him?
Life goes on. The day-to-day takes over again. But underneath it, you keep your awareness of life’s fragility.