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Sweat, Rice

On Monday, there are leftovers from Sunday dinner. Baked chicken, red beans, macaroni pie, fresh vegetable salad, potato salad, and of course, Spanish rice. But he could get that at any of the other houses, so she saves that for herself and makes baked fish with cassava, yam, green bananas, and eddoes. Solid blue food for a man who works as hard as he. The heat from stove brings out beads of sweat on her forehead, which sometimes drop into the pot when she’s not looking or before she can wipe them away. But by the sweat of her brow, her man shall eat.

On Tuesday, the Monday leftovers are gone. She makes white rice, lentil peas and stewed chicken, with boiled plantain and cole slaw on the side. He licks the plate clean while she puts his dirty work clothes in the wash, then they sit together to watch a movie.

On Wednesday she makes pelau, which is fine because he does not come. She spends the time giving herself a facial, manicure and pedicure. He promised her a full spa day for her birthday, but that is months away and she cannot neglect herself in the interim.

On Thursday, she makes fish again, with carrot rice and green peas. He tells her not to cook the next day because they’re going out. It’s payday too, so he gives her just enough to last until the next week and not for the first time she thinks about getting another job. But he doesn’t want her to work, and anyway he takes good care of her, what else does she need?

On Friday, they go to the cinema and watch a movie, then finish the evening drinking beers at a bar on the side of the road. A fight breaks out around two in the morning and he takes her home. She keeps talking so that he won’t fall asleep in the frosty AC, the smell of beer on his breath filling the car as he responds. And when they get back to the house, he lies down on her bed fully clothed and falls asleep. But he snores too loud for her to have a good rest.

On Saturday she wakes early to make a soup, which he declares that he hates when the smell lures him out of the bedroom. They go out for doubles, so late in the morning most of the customers have left, no longer trusting the curry in the cooler no matter how good it smells. Then he takes her to the shopping mall and the grocery so she can replenish stocks and he plays a mark, no longer insisting that this time he might win something. But he drops her back home after that and leaves. He has other plans for the evening, with other people, and anyway she needs the time to get the washing done.

On Sunday, she’s on her way to church, a mere fifteen-minute walk from her home when she overhears a neighbour say, “Watch she nah, no shame. I don’t understand how these young girls nowadays does think. And all of them sharing this one man as if it don’t have no other.”

Another replies, “Well is better they share that one than go after somebody else own.”

After church she makes oven-baked barbecue chicken, macaroni salad, corn pie, callaloo and fried rice. The smell fills her one-bedroom apartment and drifts out the window until the woman next door pokes her head out and say, “Aye girl, what you making? I bringing a plate.”

They have lunch together with the door open, so that she can look out into the street in case his car pulls up. It never does, and on the fifth glance, her neighbour says, “You know he have another woman in the next street, right? They have a child too and she does tell everybody she is his wife. You lucky that you don’t have one too. You don’t want to get tied down to a man like that.”

She has imagined what their child might look like many times. He is handsome, tall, and mixed race. A son that looked like him would be better, so that they could go to events similarly dressed and joke with co-workers about making a photocopy of himself. She knows the other woman has a daughter, as light-skinned as her, with long hair worn in many puffy plaits with ribbons and bubbles and clips. He has never brought the child around, but she almost ran into them once at the grocery store. A son would be good.

After lunch, her neighbour helps her wash up and pack away the rest of the food. Then she goes to her apartment and returns with a flyer that she presses into her hands and says, “Listen, you might think you in a good place right now, and that might be true. This could all be working out real good for you and I’m just sticking my nose in but I cannot just sit down and let this happen. This place looking for employees. Get yourself your own money because you never know.”

She has popcorn for dinner, scrolling YouTube for recipes while the TV drones on in the background. Sunday night programming has never improved over the years. And then the phone rings.

There is a young woman she doesn’t know on the other end, giggling happily as she informs her that she is pregnant and that she should “leave my man alone from now on, you hear. And don’t be trying to do no obeah on me or my baby either. I know how all you bush women does think.”

Monday again, she makes white rice, curried chicken and dhal. He wrinkles his nose a little at the sight of it and cleans his plate. She thinks about bringing up the phone call, pass it off as a funny story about a prank from some silly child. She thinks about confronting him directly, demanding the truth about the other women once and for all. She is not the one who wanted this relationship in the first place. He had pursued her, aggressively, for months. He was always there to pick her up after work or drop her off in the morning. He brought her presents. He would find her in the grocery or the shopping mall or coming out of the salon. When she got laid off, along so many of her co-workers, he had been there to comfort her and insist that all was going to be well because he was a man and it was his job to take care of her. She has been out of work for almost a year since. Most of her co-workers have found other jobs, including the ones that do not have children to take care of. But she can get another if she looked, it will be difficult, but not impossible.

He sees the flyer on the table on his way out, stares at it for a minute, then at her, but leaves without comment. He already knows she will not go for it, a sales clerk in some small store after ten years in the HR department of a major company? Not a chance.

Tuesday, she makes Jamaican rice and peas with jerk chicken and fresh salad. He grins broadly when she sets the dishes out and says, “What, girl, you could open a restaurant. Business would be booming. I does tell everybody, your food is the best I ever had, all the time.”

She wonders what happened to him not wanting her to work. But maybe this is just idle talk, praise pulled out of him by a full belly. She says, “I thought about doing a little thing, on weekends maybe, to help cover the bills.”

His expression clouds and he asks, “What you need extra money for? I not giving you enough? You don’t have to do that.”

“I don’t need extra money,” she says, quickly. “I just thought it would be something to do.”

“You don’t have to do that,” he says, and that is the end of it.

Wednesday, she wakes early and makes roti, grinding the dhal peas herself with the old grinder her mother gifted her when she moved into her own place. An aunt had taught her, insisting that the time-consuming process was worth the effort, especially if the dough swelled fat on the stove. The sweat beading on her face in the heat drips into the curried chicken and potatoes, channa, pumpkin and sweet mango sauce. His smile is so wide that she thinks his face will split in half.

“What, girl, you does treat me so good!” he exclaims, kissing her on the cheek.

And he does treat her well in turn. This is not what she wanted initially, but things have worked out well so far. She does not have to worry about her bills or food or clothes. She has a roof over her head and her rent is always paid on time. Maybe she can get her own car one day, nothing too expensive, second-hand even, that she can use when she has errands. A car is very useful when one has a child.

Before she can broach the topic, he says, “You know, your idea about the restaurant the other day wasn’t bad. It is always good to have some extra money lying around for emergencies.”

“Oh? Really? Well, I will need to get some extra groceries, but I can start off small. I saw this one person online who takes orders for the week and stuff,” she says, not quite believing his turnaround.

“Yeah, start off small. That’s not bad,” he agrees.

They spend the rest of the evening working out a plan. She makes a mock-up of a weekly menu that he promises to get printed at work the next day and distribute among co-workers. The rest he will return for her to share with her neighbours. If this works out, she will get her food badge, certifying her to sell for the public. She cannot officially operate her business out of her apartment, the landlord would kick her out, but maybe she can find a place to lease.

Thursday morning the phone rings early and when she answers, the giggling girl snaps, “You don’t hear? I tell you already that he and me going to have a baby. What is this about you selling food? Who want your sweat rice? To mash up who good living?”

She straightens her spine and says, “You know he already have a big child with somebody else right?”

For a beat there is silence on the other end, and then, slightly less smug than earlier, the girl says, “What that have to do with me? Them done long time, he does just go and see her for the child. You have no child with him though, so I don’t know why you hanging around.”

She hangs up on the girl and makes Chinese-style chicken, steamed vegetables and fried rice. He says, “I had this for lunch,” but sits down to eat anyway.

He tells her he is not coming on Friday, so she goes to hand out flyers to her neighbours and then take a walk through the town. She should have guessed that she might run into him, her subconscious had probably led her to go looking in the first place. She does not expect the giggling girl, gently rubbing a still flat belly. And she is a girl, barely out of her teens. He has a hand on the small of her back and is guiding her through the streets, talking to her in a low voice. He looks at her as if she is the whole world. The girl pretends not to notice but she cannot stop smiling.

She does not cook on Saturday. Instead, she sits and thinks. She has been out of work for more than a year. Her savings had mostly gone into furnishing the apartment, but he has been covering her expenses. Without him, she does not have much. With him, she has less.

She gets up and goes out before the time he would usually show up. The mall is busy when she arrives, but she has no money, so she spends her time wandering past the stores, imagining what it would be like to have her own restaurant there. The rent would be high, but by the time she is able to do something like this, she would have enough. When he calls, she does not answer and switches off her phone.

He is waiting for her when she gets back to the apartment, angry. “What happen to you? Why you turn off your phone? What if something happen to you and I couldn’t get on to you?”

She wants to say, I need you to go and don’t come back here. Instead, she says, “I went out without charging it and the battery died. And I forget to charge it when I came back. Did you need something?”

His eyes narrow in suspicion, disbelieving, but she just looks back at him as always, gaze matching his so that he has her full attention, eyes only slightly widened in surprise and a little confusion. It feels a little as if she’s wearing a mask, but she loves him so deeply that it holds.

With no evidence to contradict her, his anger deflates, and he says, “I buy you a portable charger. Try and walk with it if you going out nah.”

“Yes, okay,” she says. And then, “Do you want something to eat? I saw this recipe I wanted to try from that restaurant we went to on my birthday last.”

“Okay,” he replies.

She makes spicy buffalo wings, fried shrimp, baby back ribs and baked fries, with a generous Caesar salad and three different dipping sauces on the side. After, they make love in the living room and he promises that as long as she stays with him, that she keeps herself just for him just like this, that they will be happy forever. He only ever says this when they are making love.

He leaves without a word before the sun comes up. She does not go to church. Instead, she lies in bed staring out the window, thinking again. Despite his promises, she knows that he isn’t going to stay with her. Even if they have a child, it would be yet another in the many he already has scattered around their too small town. That he changed his mind about the restaurant means that he’s one day going to stop giving her money, and once he cuts that tie, it will be so easy to walk out the door and never return. She’s given up so much. She’s too old now, like that girl said, who will look her way? No, she cannot allow this to happen.

“Sweat rice”, the girl had called her food. She would laugh at the irony if there weren’t tears in her eyes. She shouldn’t be surprised that the girl would believe that about her either. She had heard the rumours her whole life, of women who would squat over pots of cooling rice or boil the rice with used underwear. It seemed too outrageous. The steam would burn. The underwear would ruin the flavour of the food. But the stories were too common for it not to have some grain of truth somewhere.

Sunday dinner is simple. Carrot rice, lamb chops, stewed green peas, boiled plantain, and fresh salad with barbadine punch to wash it down. He had called earlier to say that he would come over for dinner. She has her dinner first and sits quietly while he eats, sipping on ice water, tapping one foot on the floor. When he asks, she says, “I ate earlier. I’m not hungry. You know how barbadine does full your stomach. All the milk.”

He nods at this and goes back to his meal.

After, they watch a movie together wrapped in each other’s arms. Then he falls asleep on the couch, and she has to nudge him awake when the movie ends to go to bed.

He stays for breakfast the next morning, mini cheese hamburgers, yogurt with nectarine and kiwi slices, carrot punch and coffee. She packs him the leftovers from yesterday for lunch. He kisses her on the cheek before he heads out. Nothing feels different.

She makes rice again for lunch. Beetroot rice, stewed beef, sweet potato salad, with watercress on the side. He does not call, but in the afternoon, she hears his car pull up. He greets her with a bruising kiss and nips her lower lip until the skin breaks and she tastes blood. He smiles when she pulls away with a gasp and says, “Don’t study that. You know how much I love you girl.”

He devours the meal, half-hunched over the plate as if guarding it from unseen rivals. Then bends her over the kitchen table and eats and eats until she is incoherent.

She has to force him out of the house the next morning. His phone rang incessantly through the night until he switches it off and dumps it somewhere under the bed. And no sooner is he gone from the house, than her own phone rings and it’s the girl from before spitting angry curses at her. She lets her run for a full minute before hanging up and blocking the number.

Today’s meal is plain white rice, pak choy, stewed chicken, boiled plantains. He returns just as she switches off the stove, wrapping his hands around her body and making a trail of kisses along her neck to her shoulder where he bites until he draws blood, and she swats him away. He moves away long enough for her to make him a plate, then insists that she sit on his lap while he eats so that he can keep one hand up her skirt.

But this time when they make love, he bites her everywhere, shoulders, neck, arms, breasts, stomach, knees, and inner thighs. More than once it’s enough to draw blood that he licks away with declarations of love. When he finally falls asleep, she goes into the bathroom to find that she looks as she’s been attacked by some kind of wild animal. There are bites and scratches and bruises all over her skin. If this continues, she’s going to wind up in the hospital. And he still hasn’t made the promise that she wants to hear.

She packs him a meal with fresh rice before he leaves. When he asks, she says, “I left the other one out too long and it spoil.”

She goes out for groceries and ends up in the mall again, wandering while she thinks. She doesn’t need to do this. She can find a job or open her own restaurant. She sits in the food court and watches the staff setting up the various booths and counters. She’s switched off her phone again and hope he doesn’t come looking for her.

He doesn’t but he’s waiting for her outside her apartment. He charges her as she gets out of the taxi, yelling, “Where you was whole day?”

This time she says, “I need you to go. I want you to leave and don’t come back here.”

“What?” he asks, eyes going wide, nostrils flaring in his fury.

“I want you to go and don’t come back here,” she says. “Forget my number, forget my name, forget you ever see me. I done with this.”

“Girl, what stupidness you talking?” he demands, marching towards her.

From behind, she hears her neighbour say, “Don’t worry girl, I sitting right here.”

He turns back to her neighbour and says, “Don’t get involved in man and woman business.”

Her neighbour scoffs and says, “You cannot tell me what to do.”

She says louder, cutting across their argument, “I want you to go. Give me my spare key, please.”

He turns to her and begins, “Girl, what—”

“How much am I supposed to take?” she demands. “I didn’t even know you was still with the other girl before we get together and now this next one going to have a baby, calling up my phone to boast like the little fool that she is. It really good that we don’t have no children because if I get stick-up with you, is hell for me for the rest of my life. So go, go from here!”

He rears back, shocked. Clearly this was the last thing he was expecting her to say. Then he regroups, leans in and snarls, “Is I paying all your bills! You could live here without me? Who you trying to fool? Girl, stop with this foolishness a—”

He reaches for her hand, but she shakes him off, steps back. He surges forward, hands up, going for her throat and suddenly another neighbour is there, old Dhanraj, still in his work overall and tall boots. He puts himself between them and says, “You need to leave and if I catch you around here again, I go stop you with the cutlass.”

He turns to the old man and asks, “Is threaten, you threatening me?”

“No, I warning you,” says the old man. And he emphasises this with a shove, forcing him back.

He stares at her for a moment, pleading, but she looks away. After a moment, he puts his hands up in surrender, the old man releases him, and he gets into his car and drives away.

She breaks down as soon as she’s inside her apartment again with the doors locked.

He comes back in the middle of the night with the spare key. She wakes up as soon as he walks into the bedroom and just manages to scramble out of the bed before he launches at her.

“Where you going, girl?”

She does not answer but runs to the kitchen. The knife is in her hands without her thinking about it. He pulls up short when he sees it and asks, “What you going to do with that?”

She doesn’t know. She’s not sure about anything she’s done in the last few days, weeks, months. She says, “Get out of my house!”

“Is I keeping you here! Is I paying for everything! You can’t put me out of here! You mad or what?” he yells back, advancing slowly.

She raises the knife and screams, “Get out of my house! Get away from me! I done! I fed up! I not playing this game with you no more! I want my life back!”

She’s shaking so much by the time she stops, voice already going hoarse, that she’s having trouble standing. He just stares back at her, breathing hard, and then says in a quiet voice, “I can’t . . . ”

The words hit her like a punch in the stomach, all the air and fury rushing out of her at once. She drops the knife but puts her hand up to stop him from coming closer. He doesn’t but he shifts forward as if he wants to. Of course, he can’t leave. She made him stay. She tries not to look at the rice pot on the stove or think about the container in the fridge. She made him fresh rice but did not throw out the old one.

Instead, she meets his gaze and says, “You can. You was already halfway out the door, keep going.”

His expression becomes pleading, he lunges towards her, fingers just missing her bare arm and she pulls back, knife raised. She repeats, “You can. Go from here. You have all those other people. You don’t need to pay my bills or do nothing. You can go and live your life and I not going to bother you.”

“Babe . . . baby, come on,” he says, still pleading. But his teeth are a little too sharp and his eyes just this side of wild.

She takes a breath, straightens her spine, turns and walks to the sink. Her heart races in her chest the whole time but she wills herself not to panic. He does not move. She fills a glass with water and says, “Drink this and go. I’m not going to call the police or anybody. You can leave. You want to leave. So go.”

She sets the glass down on the counter and steps away from it so that he won’t have to take it from her hands. He’s struggling with something, staring at her in that pleading way but also not moving from where he’s standing. Finally, he takes the cup and drinks the water anyway. Then sets it down on the counter and says, “I can’t go.”

“Then I’m going,” she says, voice firm, calm now that he’s listening to her. “Don’t follow me. I’ll lock you in here so you can’t follow.”

He says nothing to this, so she walks to the door and goes out into the hall. The old man is there with his cutlass, the neighbour too. She says to them, “It’s okay. He just needs some time and he’s going to leave. I’m going for a walk.”

“At this hour?” asks the old man.

“I need to get away from here until he leaves. Don’t worry about me. Just make sure he doesn’t follow,” she says, then she walks down the stairs, across the yard and out of the gates.

When she returns the next morning, he’s left the spare key on the kitchen counter. She goes to the fridge, takes out the containers and dumps the rice in the bin. Her breakfast is plain cereal with hot milk.

About the Author

Shari Paul is a speculative fiction writer from Trinidad and Tobago, the land of oil, music and Carnival. Shari has a BA in Literatures in English, but works as a clerk. She has been published in FIYAH, The Dark, Clarkesworld, and Escape Pod, with reprints in Podcastle and Il Buio. You may find her on Twitter ranting about dramas, music or anything really, when she’s not writing.