In Zimbabwe, a case of mistaken identity

A youthful husband unwittingly puts his wife in an awkward spot.

My husband is only nine months younger than I am. But lately people have begun to mistake him for my son.

Picture the scene. I have persuaded him to accompany me to my local supermarket in eastern Zimbabwe. I am relishing having someone to trot up to the bread counter, then back to the shopping trolley, off to find some vinegar, back to the trolley, while I muse languidly by the peanut butter. "I must do this more often," I say to myself happily.

We proceed to the till. A security guard edges closer to help pack our groceries. He greets me warmly: "Hello Amai" (mother).

I smile at him.

"Is this your son?" the guard asks.

"My son?" (My husband says afterward that my mouth dropped open.) I start to stammer. "He's ... he's my husband!"

I beat a hasty retreat from the store vowing to always shop alone.

Then it happens again.

This time we have been stopped at a police roadblock, one of several on the main highway between the capital, Harare, and the border town of Mutare.

An officer, bulky in his winter fluorescents, peers in through the driver's window. "Where is the daddy?" he asks.

"The daddy?" This time it's my husband who is stumped. "My father is at home."

The officer considers us. The thought of a fine keeps my lips clamped together.

"Well, look after the mother," he orders my husband before waving us on.

"He thought you were my son!" I say crossly, as soon as the driver's window is safely sealed. I turn and glare at my husband. "Can't you stop looking like you're 16 years old?"

"I don't look 16," he says mildly.

I study his profile: not the hint of a wrinkle there. I wonder: Has he been secretly smoothing on the face cream my sister faithfully sends me? If so, it must work better on him than it ever has on me.

"You do," I am forced to concede. "Seventeen at the very most."

My husband looked boyish when I first set eyes on him more than 10 years ago. It's one of the reasons I fell in love. I'd just gotten off a long-haul flight from Paris, stumbled into an office in Harare, and there, behind the first desk I came across, was a ravishingly handsome man with thick dark curls and brown eyes. Think Laurie in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" (but sans the inheritance).

Six months and a bit later we were married.

Together we've weathered Zimbabwe's long-running economic and political crisis, raised a son (and six cats), nurtured friendships, cherished two cottages, and argued over literature in the flickering candlelight characteristic of many an electricity-less evening here. All of these are things you'd think would leave their mark on a man. Not on my husband, it seems. He has stayed boyish.

While I must have matured.

"Tell me: Do I really look old?" I venture, a few miles farther down the road. I fix my eyes on the thin gray strip of tar ahead. As a writer in a country where spreading falsehoods can land you in jail, truth is my husband's core business. He weighs every word he types, checks every date in his laboriously maintained set of diaries. I know that every word he says is true, or as near to the truth as he can get it. I wait with bated breath.

"You look lovely," my husband says. Mollified, I settle back into the passenger seat, congratulating myself on my choice of a mate. I will forgive the security guard and the police officer for their small mistake, I think. I am sorry I ever suspected my husband of using my face cream.

The world looks rosy again. I watch as vendors hold out perfectly balanced pyramids of shiny tomatoes as our car skims past.

"You could always dye your hair bright red," he says suddenly. "You know you've always wanted to."

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