“Ada Bekee” by Ebele R.I Mọgọ
If you wait outside long enough, your sweaty cardigan clinging to your unwashed armpits while the humid Ikeja air salutes your face, you will feel like it is a crime to stand still here. From the taxi drivers who continue to pester you like stubborn houseflies, to the motor park boys who insist on carrying your luggage at all costs, everyone is out to hustle you. But waiting outside is the only thing you can do while your father braves the rush hour to get you. Your eyes squint, adamant on adjusting to all that light while your skin warms up to the hot evening breeze that does not cool you.
“No, thank you”, you say to the young boy that shoves the cell phone recharge card in your face.
“Aunty, taxi?”, another man asks immediately. He drags his left leg lazily behind the right one, twirling his car keys. His head is shaved but a white carpet of fresh growth shines off its greasy surface.
“No, thank you”, you say again, starting to lose patience.
A few minutes later when you stop responding to the hustlers entirely and avoid making eye contact, you sense yourself slipping into the persona you wear to survive here, that street- smart look that your cousins change into so easily but makes you feel like an imposter.
On the other side of the road, a horde watches the latest batch of returnees walk out through the sliding doors of the arrival hall. They are stubborn houseflies too, the horde. Uniformed men continue to ward them off only for them to return to the same spot minutes later.
“Please don’t come past this line”, a fair skinned uniformed man has to say again to get them to move back one more time. With a stick he draws the same imaginary line on the concrete floor that he drew just a few minutes ago, the same line that he will draw again in a few minutes.
You smile a tired smile. Everyone, from the man shooing the horde to the horde and to you is tired. So much energy, spent getting through a day’s worth of chaos only to resume the next day. This is what you hate and love about home. There is a primal part of you that comes out here that you cannot access in Calgary. It is a part of you that jay walks across heavily trafficked highways, darting your eyes left and right sharply and then running for dear life. It is a part of you that pushes against bodies to be attended to at the bank counter. It yells at workers who drill in the room beside your hotel room while you try to sleep because shouting is the only way to be taken seriously here especially if you are a skinny, 4-foot 10-inch-tall woman. It will damn the risks and mount a motorbike without wearing a helmet, the teenage cycler swerving across cars and trucks on the Lagos-Apapa express road to get you home fast.
A young woman in front of the crowd sips water lazily from a sachet while cradling an infant. With the same lazy look, she plants her eyes on you, scanning you – from your afro to your Calvin Klein wristwatch down to your brown high heeled winter boots. She makes eye contact with you, you tired and unsure if to smile, she studious and searching. Satisfied and perhaps unimpressed, she throws her gaze away to the family beside you.
You scan the horde outside the arrival hall while placing your MTN sim card into your phone to text your father and let him know where you are. Three hostesses from KLM come out for a smoke with their hand luggage in tow and their pale faces wet with sweat. Their sky-blue suits, long blonde hair and terrified faces stand out and so everyone turns to study them while they huddle in the corner, like dogs confined by a leash. They hold on tight and cautiously to their luggage and their eyes move robotically, only from the ground to one another, never at the horde they certainly feel studying them. Their language sounds abrasive – Dutch perhaps? Soon they are done their smoke break and they turn around to walk back in. The fair-skinned soldier greets them loudly with a patronizing smile and an affected accent. They nod briskly at him, their replies muttered and laconic, then walk away.
A voice screams “Ada” to the far left of the entrance and you turn to see that face, still blue-black and still framed by a long goatee, waving hyper-actively at you. Beside him your stepmother smiles at you too. She points you out to your two half-brothers and they run ahead of their parents toward you. You sigh, relieved. It has become a ritual- your father standing outside the airport waving earnestly, sweat trickling down his forehead and long, pointed nose you inherited from him; and relieved once you fish out his face in this sea of expectant faces. These days he always comes to pick you with Chioma and you miss the intimacy of those times when he came alone. But that has been a long while now, with two quickly growing younger brothers to show for it.
Obinna and Obiora enclose you in a hug, Obinna in front and Obiora behind. You look down at their little heads, freshly shaven for your arrival.
“Look at you two, you are all so grown up now!”, you say, trying to hug the two of them at the same time.
“Yes we are Aunty Ada. See I even have muscles now”, Obinna says as he flexes his little right arm to show you a little mound. You catch a whiff of pre-pubescent sweat.
“Don’t mind him Aunty Ada. He is always wrestling people at school. Daddy has told him to stop doing that”, says the righteous Obiora.
“It’s not true”, Obinna retorts, “it is only when they look for my trouble that I fight them”
Even at this age you can tell that Obiora will be the voice of reason of the duo and Obinna will be the one who will need more talking sense into.
“Stop it you two”, Chioma says, halting the argument.
“You should get Aunty Ada’s bags instead of arguing. Get her bags and let her relax”
“Mummy it is Obinna that started it. Daddy has told him to stop showing off his muscles but he is always doing it”.
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy. All the shouts of daddy throw you into a daze. That word “Daddy” used to be for you alone.
“Yes that’s right, Obinna stop it or Daddy will beat you next time you do it”, Chioma replies, waving her index finger vigorously in front of Obinna’s face, then looking up at you to give you a hug.
Your father waits with an accommodating smile for her to finish hugging you then he throws his hairy and stout arms around you, whispering “Ada Bekee” into your ears. A smile forms around your face as you take in his body, cool against your head as always, its scent a concoction of sweat and Sure deodorant. This is the smell of your childhood.
As the three of you walk to the parking lot you talk about the flight and about your brothers who race each other to the car with your bags. Your father goes ahead of you and Chioma to pay for the parking space, to load your things into the car, to make sure the boys are behaving. There is something comforting about this new graceful and homely rhythm to his life. With you being his reclusive and keen only child, this is really his first chance to know how it feels to be bothered by normal children who fight and argue and play. He is calmer now and there are tired lines on his face but it is a mother-hen type of tired, like a smile of relief after an accomplished day.
Chioma doesn’t look tired at all. She looks capable – of teaching the boys mathematics, bargaining at the market and still putting dinner on the table later with a smile on her face. She looks like she knows how to take care of your father without smothering him, how to anticipate his needs, respond to them before he can even articulate them. He too seems to love her in that mother hen kind of way – sufficiently and stably. And maybe this is the kind of love he needs, this reasoned practical love. Not the kind of love they say he had for your mother, the kind they say is not feasible in Africa. They say your mother was spoiled with too much education and that your father used to cook for her and that she was an older woman and all of that made her lose respect for him as the head of the family.
Your aunty Nneka always tells you that the day your mother packed her things and left everything, no one was surprised. The only thing they did not understand was why she packed all her bags without taking any of them. It was as if she didn’t want to leave with any reminder of your father, yet she wanted to make certain what was hers even then. She left you like she left her luggage, neatly placed on the carefully made bed. You were well dressed, your hair freshly plaited and your face and neck dusted with baby powder – you used to sweat a lot. Your father left all her things in the guest room for such a long time that you grew up to see them every time you went into the room. You could never get yourself to open the bags, all four of them in her favourite colour blue, to get a glimpse into what clothes she wore, what books she read, what she smelled like. You came to hate the colour blue. Blue was the colour of those who didn’t stay.
Your father never took the blue bags out of that room until his fiancé Lydia moved in and threw them all away when he travelled to Kogi. He fumed when he came back and while you wanted the bags gone, you understood his fury. Lydia could not. She couldn’t seem to understand how he expected her to marry him with the property of another woman in her matrimonial home.
“No bring that oyibo love come my side o!”, she shouted at him when he confronted her.
“Couldn’t you have told me at least?”, he asked at the top of his quiet voice.
“Why? So you would stop me from throwing them away?”, she barked.
She kissed her teeth and went upstairs, slamming the door of whichever room she had entered. She always looked like a tiger when they argued. Her eyes would pop, her jaws opening wide as they threw words like poisoned darts everywhere. You were happy when things did not work out between her and your father. You despised the way she liked to plan his life and make you feel like the third wheel, the way she so quickly wanted you to call her ‘mum’ without even treating you like a daughter, the way she had the nerve to smack you when you failed your test like she was infact your parent.
Chioma was good for your father. His energy was always conserved around her, spent making her and your brothers content instead of wasted on arguments. And she respected her place from the onset, never trying to be your mother, never trying to demand that you return the care she carefully gave you. She was an open door you could walk through only when you were ready.
Throughout the ride home, you reacquaint yourself with your country. With every bump in the road, every scarcely lit major highway, every man brandishing his penis to urinate in the clogged gutters and every whiff of exhaust fume from rickety cars, home reawakens in your body. It is no longer in the world of ideas or nostalgic ideals but in rushes of adrenaline, surprise, disgust and joy. Your father talks politics predictably, about how the country is getting worse, how it may cease to exist one day and like you two always did you start to spar fondly. He says you are too freshly returned from Canada and that if you will wait and see you will find out that he is right and you are wrong.
You laugh. Right now, everything makes you laugh a little more than necessary. When your father drives over the bridge he winds the windows down completely because he knows that letting the breeze brush past you while he sped past the Lagos bridges was your favourite moment when you were little and it was just you and him. Chioma smiles and sighs and smiles and sighs and sometimes says “you two!”, smiling and sighing. She is happy the family is complete. She is happy for your father. In her side of the front seat, you see her, sitting on the edge of the bond between you two, knowing there will still be something for her. The boys lose themselves in the bag of chocolates you gave them, counting and then sharing them.
Soon, you leave the express, and turn and turn into Apple Junction. Then you gallop over the bridge there, and into Festac. Your father’s SUV turns into your close and as it gets closer to the house you are greeted by balloons and a welcome sign over the gate that reads “Welcome home Anty Ada!”, the “anty” struck through and replaced with an “aunty” written in adult handwriting.
“We made it for you”, the boys say together searching your face intently for a reaction. What other option is there for you but to admire it gleefully? So you do.
“You better not let them disturb you too much Ada, you need to rest tonight”, Chioma says and while the boys try to pull your bags and your father parks the car, both of you leave them behind and head up the stairs to your room.
“I hope you like the curtains. I changed them and we also redid the rug and the bathroom”, she says then hesitates when you get to your room door.
“Aunty Chioma you can come in”, you say.
“No, it’s fine. If I come in the boys will come in and bother you. Just shower and rest up. I will ask Franca to bring your food to your room and tomorrow we can catch up”.
“Thank you aunty”.
A few minutes later, a tall girl in her mid-twenties knocks on your door, bringing a tray of jellof rice and fried meat in once you open it. She is fair skinned and lanky. She looks shy yet happy to finally meet you, the Canadian sister that Obinna and Obiora could not stop talking about. Every time you talk to her she blushes and observes you. She lingers at the door so you invite her to join you for dinner but she shakes your invitation aside as if it is silly and sits beside you instead. Her lips say nothing at all, but her gaze is loud as she observes your bags, your high heeled boots in the corner of the room and your nose ring which she stares at for a while. When you are done, you search your luggage quickly for the chocolate bars and dresses you got her and offer them as makes to take the tray away. She thanks you profusely, taking the tray out of the room with a large smile.
“Thank you Aunty Ada”, she says again as she pulls the door shut with the hand that is free.
“Thank you Franca”.
Everything in your room looks smaller now, even the bed that you once thought was too big for only you to sleep in as a little girl.
Many years ago, the pyjamas in the chest of drawers, the clothes in the wardrobe and the books on the shelf were all the possessions you had. All the people you knew lived mostly in Lagos, some in Anambra, very few in Port Harcourt and Abuja and even fewer in Kaduna. They were much simpler days.
Your bathroom is the same, its door still plastered with posters from when you were a teenager. Only the shower curtain has been replaced. You look into the mirror at your face, your makeup worn out from the day spent travelling and your eyes red from contacts that you slept in on the plane. A few years ago, you looked into this mirror at your chest after Aunty Nneka teased you about the stumps you were starting to grow. You lifted up your shirt, holding it in place with your teeth then you fondled the two strangers growing on your chest. They were sore and one was bigger than the other which made you worried that you might have cancer. How could you know that the lumps inside of them were not cancer when all the health promotion leaflets said to be concerned if you felt a lump? You could not ask your father so you waited and told Aunty Nneka the next time you saw her. After she laughed at you, she told you that it was quite okay for one breast to grow faster than the other. It was quite okay for it to feel lumpy in there, except for certain lumps which she told you about. She also taught you what to expect when your period came.
Aunty Nneka was always so boisterous that you could not understand how she and your father could come from the same family. She was the closest to mother you knew; never failing to tell you exactly what she thought, from how much she believed in you to how stupid she thought you were when you said you were going to leave Calgary over a broken heart. Despite all the shouting and cursing which she did very often you knew that she was always there, fixed in your corner.
When your father said that he wanted you to marry an Igbo man, she was the one who talked to him. She was the one who told you that it was good that you had a good man regardless of his race and religion. She was the one who said that Richard must have been a nice open-minded man to date a black girl. You were not sure if to be offended, but you opted instead to squeeze out the crass solidarity and leave it at that.
After every fight, Aunty Nneka was there with her crass solidarity – telling you to understand that fathers were usually like that, that they couldn’t appreciate that having suitors meant that people were at least pricing the goods in the market, which was a good sign that you were on your way to finding a husband. And you always took it because it was all you could get. It was still her that you called that day you got the emergency room call, and slipped into your sweatpants hurriedly to find out what had happened to Richard.
“They had a motorcycle accident”, the doctor said.
“Who is they?”, you asked and he pointed at the girl two bunks away from the comatose Richard, the girl Richard always insisted was only a colleague.
“Cocaine”, the doctor said.
“He hit the ramp and the force flung them the other side of the bridge. They are lucky they didn’t fall off that bridge. They could have been dead by now”.
You told the doctor never to contact you again, giving him Richard’s mother’s number instead and then turned to walk away, afraid that your legs would give way. When you got home, you headed straight to bed without changing. Although it was a summer morning, a chill ran through your body. You had never felt that alone in your life and so unyielding to everything, even the air willing you to breathe, the food in your fridge, the calls of your friends. That night you took the engagement ring off your finger and you placed it on top of the tall fridge.
“You plan to do what with the ring?”, Aunty Nneka asked so that you could repeat what she considered a stupid idea.
“Return it”, you say again, sniffling.
“Bull shit. Are you stupid? After what he did? You are not returning that ring”
“Aunty but I don’t want it anymore. It’s over”, you cried over the phone line.
“Then you sell it and put the money in your savings!”, she screamed from the other end.
“And you are not moving back to Toronto, you hear me? You are not leaving your great job because of a stupid boy. Do you know who you are? Because you gave that culture-less bastard a chance. You are not leaving Calgary. If anyone should leave it is him. Do you hear me Ada?”
Chioma called when she heard too. She said less. She empathized and filled the phone connection with sighs and pauses.
“A broken engagement is better than a broken marriage”, she reminded you.
She told you not to worry because God knows best, that anyways she was even worried because white men tend to be serial killers and that she was always scared for you. Now you said nothing and defended nothing, you just listened as everyone tried to console you in ways that were beside the point. They were trying it seemed, and you were too tired and too depressed to argue.
Your father never said anything about the breakup but he called more often and asked if you had eaten more often. He told you that it had been a while since you had been home and that were you to decide to come home he would pay for your ticket and give you a personal chauffeur.
When the generator is turned off that night, you are comforted by the darkness and the coolness of the air-conditioned room. Franca brings you a rechargeable lantern and while you turn off its light, you turn on its radio like you always did as a teenager. In the dark you could be anywhere – in the village with your aunts and uncles, in the hotel in Paris where you and Richard went last summer, or in your apartment in downtown Calgary where you would always do the same thing – turn off the lights and turn on the radio and only then, fall asleep.
An obioma wakes you up the next morning as he passes by the adjacent street, his scissors clanking away on his sewing machine. You try to imagine his face, darkened from years hawking his skills in the early morning sun, perhaps wearing a leather sandal that has been faithful to him for years, his sewing machine hoisted high on his right shoulder. Some things never change and you guess rightly that a newspaper vendor will pass by shortly, blowing his horn.
Someone clears the microphone in a nearby church that you do not remember being there when you were last home. She clears it again, blowing air into it animatedly amidst shouts of “testing, testing, 1, 2” and then she starts to sing, the sound loud enough for you to think that it is coming from your house. This too hasn’t changed, people waking sleeping neighbours with their early morning songs and midnight prayers in ever proliferating make-shift churches.
The singer is singing a song you know, a song you sang all those mornings on the school assembly ground and at Sunday school. Her voice is loud and too shrill for the morning. It irritates you, and yet because this noise is something that would never happen in Calgary, the annoyance too feels like home. A smile runs through your body, exiting in a sigh whose force you ride on to get up from the bed. You open the windows letting in the warm air and the song. You sing along.
“Good morning Jesus, good morning Lord. I know you come from heaven above. The Holy Spirit is on the throne. Good morning Jesus, good morning Lord”.
The lyrics feel like old friends you are not sure still remember you. There was a time when everything that made the lady’s exuberant show of faith presumptuous was everything that made it pure.
Chioma knocks on your door, letting herself in.
“Did you sleep well?”, she asks as she straightens and tucks in the bed-sheet on the part of the bed she plans to sit on.
“Yes aunty, thank you so much. You really made the room well. I appreciate everything”
“It’s my pleasure, my dear. Happy to have you back. I am sure you will be jet lagged so make sure you rest. You are here to rest. If you need anything, let Franca or the boys do it. Rest!”
“Aunty you are spoiling me too much”, you say to her, blushing.
“That’s what step mothers are for”.
“It is nice to be home”, you say as you sit beside her.
“Even the heat feels good, the noise, everything”
“What of the mosquitos?” she asks and when you burst out laughing, she joins you.
She pats your lap and you look at her, as the compassionate smile on her lips migrates to her eyes. You imagine those eyes looking at your father too, listening to him after a hard day.
“Your father was very worried about you, Ada. You know you are his only daughter, his Ada Bekee “.
“I thought he was happy. That was what he wanted anyways”.
“Yes, but not like that. You have to know he wants the best for you, even when he may not do it the way you want”.
“I guess”, you say, shrugging.
“Sometimes he woke me up at night, asking me to call you to make sure you were okay. He was afraid that you might be depressed.”
“Really?”, you ask, shocked that your father even had a concept of depression.
“Yes. That’s why he wanted you to come home for a while at least. We are so happy to see you. Just rest. Time will heal and we will play our part”, she says smiling.
“Thank you Aunty”.
“Anytime. Food is ready so after your shower join us. Do you want to follow me to the market? The twins turn seven in a few days. We will have a small dinner with you and Aunty Nneka to celebrate. I want to get a few things for the dinner from the market.”
“Sure, I would love to”, you say.
“Good. Let me go and make sure Franca has set the table for your father”
She loosens the wrapper on her waist and fastens it more tightly over her night gown as she leaves the room.
Agboju market never changes. Chioma parks the car in front of The Communion Church and you both go into the market by foot. People brush past one another, heads laden with basins full of produce, feet shuffling and fast. On the other side of the road that runs into the market two girls dance in front of a desk with a stereo whose sound rings through the market. They are dancing shoki and the store owners behind them come out to cheer them on.
You and Chioma stop beside the bloodied tables where men in singlets chat lightheartedly as they slice the heads and shanks and intestines and hooves of cows. Blood drips from the wooden tables onto the floor and your stomach churns. You love meat but had almost forgotten that to eat meat was to kill meat. Mammals were not so different after all and seeing the cow parts divided like that; a disembodied shank here, a decapitated head there, a dislocated foot here, a lacerated hoof there, all the red skin and blood looked like it could be human to you. The ease with which the men tore the skin off the animals with their sharp curved knives made you wonder if they had killed human beings too.
“Customer!”, shouts a man with red eyes and a pure smile, as you and Chioma walk in.
“My customer. It is you I was looking for. How family?”
“Family is fine we thank God”, he says, grinning at her then you.
“This is my stepdaughter, Ada from Canada”, Chioma replies, smiling at you, her eyes proud of the association with you.
“Welcome my sister. What did you bring for us from that side?”, Baba Azeez asks you still smiling.
Beads of sweat run helter- skelter on each side of his head. He rubs them off with the insides of his right arm and then wipes his arm on his browning white singlet.
“How are the boys, those my two troublesome friends?”
“They are fine. I even came here because I need to buy meat for their birthday dinner this weekend”
“No problem. Which one do you want?”
“Beef. With a little shaki and roundabout”
He brings out a slab of beef, a mound of shaki and a mound of the roundabout. Mindful of her synthetic nails, Chioma picks up the slab of bloodied beef between her thumb and index finger as if she is picking up a slice of cake. She applies some pressure then nods her approval and asks him to add two more slabs, some liver and some kidney. He dices each slab with precision, sending the knife, curved like Aladdin’s shoes, through the meat. One slice does it each timeHe ties up the pieces of diced meat into three separate bags and hands one to you.
“Customer how much?”, she asks, searching the pouch of her Louis Vuitton purse.
“Madam you know you are my customer. You know as we dey do am before now. I no fit cheat you.”
Chioma counts the money she pulled out from her purse swiftly, then she hands it over to him. His bloody fingers shuffle the notes meditatively and when he is done he considers it and then her.
“No wahala”, he finally says, “I no fit drag price with you”, offering with soggy, palms the remaining bag.
“Ese ma. Happy birthday to the twins. Remain my own cake o!” He laughs through dark gums, scraping the blood off the table. It drips onto the sand, forming a straight file that flows into the crack beside a concrete slab.
“Ada let me run across and buy some salad ingredients. Can you wait here?” Chioma asks.
You are nervous but you nod as if to say “of course”. She looks left and right and left and right. A motorcycle rider that zooms past becomes her cue to dash across the road. Soon she disappears into the other side of the market. You feel naked carrying the heavy bag of meat and standing like that while people brush past you, some to buy stock fish from the stall right beside you, some to enter the meat market and some simply to go further into the market.
“Excuse me”, a lady says as she pushes you to stand in front of the stock fish seller. You smell the odour from her armpit and turn the other way.
A young boy looks briefly at you then reaches across your face to take two cans of tomato purée from the woman’s shelf.
“How much?”, he asks the lady, lifting the cans.
“Excuse me”, you say to him, irritated.
“Sorry sister”, he says, then picks up some maggi cubes and lifts them across your face again asking the woman for the price.
Three customers are bargaining for items at the same time. They fiddle with the tins of tomatoes and spices and caress the bodies of the stockfish, competing for the seller’s attention by shouting over each other. When another girl pushes you from behind as she passes by with her nylon bag of freshly killed chicken, you voice your irritation.
“You no dey see road?”, you ask, pointing at your eyes and then at her.
“But you wey dey see road no dey buy. If you are not buying, excuse for other customers!” the store owner now barks at you.
You look at her and she looks at you and starts to nod in agreement with her own statement. It seems the boy beside you takes this as an excuse to brush past you once again, this time with crumpled and brown naira notes to pay for four cans of tomato purée. The woman counts them quickly then stops, bringing out a torn two hundred naira note from the bunch and raising it high in the air.
“Customer this one is torn. I can’t take it”, she says.
“The filling station will accept it”, he says.
“Then you give them not me. I no take”, she says, then passes the note across your breasts to him.
“Ok give me change”, he says, handing her a five hundred naira note.
A woman’s shriek rings across the market, halting everyone. She is right behind you. Her hands are on her head and she stands in the middle of the road, stopping the cars trying to park. The motorcycle drivers slow down to the pace of bicycles as they try to maneuver their way past her.
“My child! My child!”, she shouts.
“I cannot find my child. Oh my God o. Hei. I am finished today!”.
She slumps from car to car screaming. People begin to come out of their cars.
“My child! I left him here to go and collect the yam. He is missing. Somebody help me ooooo”
A traffic warden appears out of nowhere with a fluorescent green vest and a baton.
“Madam keep quiet! We cannot help you like this. Where did you say you left your child, let us know what to do”
“Yes she should keep quiet and explain herself. Why will she be shouting like that?” a woman from the stall beside the stockfish seller chimes in.
“Abi o”, the stockfish seller adds and nods.
The woman continues shouting and the crowd around her continues listening but it dissipates little by little. Soon everyone is back to buying and selling and even the woman has disappeared.
Someone taps you and you turn to see Chioma with two full bags in hand.
“Let us go. I ended up buying more things”, she says smiling at her full hands.
“Aunty did you see the woman that was looking for her child?”, you ask her as you walk over the raised concrete slabs that act as sidewalks.
A boy of no more than ten taps you on the curve of your back, showing you his nylon bags for sale but you eye him angrily and then ignore him.
“I heard her o. But I wasn’t even listening to her. I had things to buy”, she says, shifting the bags of food she is carrying from hand to hand until they feel balanced.
“How will she find that child in this big market?”, you wonder out loud as Chioma opens the boot for you to put the bags of meat.
“God help her. But who even knows if her child was missing? Sometimes people can have ulterior motives. You will help her to look for the child and by the time you come back your bag is gone. Anyway, I am not God so I do not know. May God help her find him o, amen”
You tap the purse on your shoulder to be sure it is still there, then let yourself into the front seat.
“That’s why I like to park here although it is a little far, to avoid all that traffic inside the market”, she continues as she turns on the car.
“Wind up!”, she commands you suddenly.
And you do, just in time for a man to press his palms against the windows and then to his mouth, mouthing the words “food”, “hungry”, “please”. His red shirt is faded and his facial hair is untamed. His eyes are piercing, his gaze burning. As Chioma reverses out of the car park, he points at his mouth then his palms and then rubs his palms together, pleading to you earnestly. You channel your inner Chioma and look away.
“Don’t mind him, he is mad”, she says, as she speeds onto the main road.
You wonder who could be sane here.
You were going to show Richard all of this when he came for the traditional wedding. You would show him the dozens of makeshift churches lined side by side on a single street, attempts at certainty in a system with way too much uncertainty not to break its people. You were going to show him the happiness of your people, how despite the hustle they were always well dressed, always smiling, always keeping on. You were going to show him the big and beautiful edifices, far more beautiful than the far too basic houses in America. You were going to show him how everything was done with grace and pomp here, how nothing was a straight line transaction and how that made life rich.
Once you, Franca and Chioma unload the meats and produce from the car, you wash your hands and join the twins and your father at the dining table. He is seated at the head of the table with Obinna on his right and Obiora on his left.
“Obinna stand up”, he says with a mouthful of food once he notices you standing over the table.
“Daddy why?”, Obinna asks frowning.
“Stand up. Your sister will seat beside me today”.
“Daddy no don’t worry”, you say.
“No Ada, sit beside me. I haven’t seen you in a long time”
He passes you the wooden scoop and opens the coolers containing the pounded yam and the other cooler with the ofe nsala then slides them toward you. After you place a scoop of pounded yam on the saucer, you use the metal ladle to serve yourself some ofe nsala and a piece of goat meat. Your father’s eyes are still watching you after you close the coolers and place them back on the centre of the table. You wash your hands in the stainless-steel bowl and wipe them with a white napkin that Franca has just brought. Chioma joins you all at the table, sitting to the right of Obinna.
“Welcome nne’mooo”, your father says to her.
“Thank you dear. Hope the food is good?”
“Very good”, he says, licking his lips.
“Me and Ada went to Agboju”
“Ada Bekee you didn’t tell me you also went into the market. Okay you have to eat more meat so you can replenish the strength you lost”
Before you can say anything, he transfers the biggest piece of goat meat on his plate into your soup bowl.
“Daddy it is huge! I don’t know if I can finish it”, you say.
“Eat. Eat”, he says.
“Daddy but I want”, says Obinna sulking as he follows the goat meat from your father’s plate to yours with his eyes.
Obiora fidgets with the blob of pounded yam on his plate, making lumps out of it with which he decorates the plate.
“Obiora”, Chioma calls.
“Why are you not eating?”
“I am full”
“But you haven’t eaten anything”
“I have eaten mummy. I ate a lot before you came back”
“Okay finish up and daddy will give you a piece of meat. O nnam?”
“What of me?” Obinna asks
“Daddy will give you too if you finish. Finish up”
Your father digs into his bowl again and then fishes out a piece of smoked fish.
“Take”, he says, dropping it on your plate.
You look at Chioma whose smile makes you realize you had been holding back one. This is how your father shows love – slant, in inferences, in excesses. Not with words, not with things that may be said in a superfluous moment and not followed through with. He loves you through sweat and sacrifice, through things you can touch, through things left unsaid. Once upon a time you would have said something like “daddy it is okay”. Like “daddy I am fine”. Like “daddy I don’t really like smoked fish”. But these days you see the grey in his goatee, the lines on his face and the way he tries to bridge the gulf that formed between you two. So instead, when he says “eat”, you do.
Chioma watches the twins, whispering to them to eat up and to drink water and to wash their hands as if to give you and your father privacy. The glare from the window falls on her face, forming a soft glow on its edges.
You surprise yourself by finishing all that food and by the sudden drowsiness that overtakes you. You spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping on the living room rug like you used to in primary school. One time your father stands up and looks over you then covers you with a wrapper. He does not know that you are now a light sleeper. You hear him ask the boys to be quiet. You hear Chioma whisper “jetlag” as she sits beside him.
Later that evening Franca taps you until you wake up.
“Aunty Ada, someone is waiting in the outside for you”
“He said his name is Kanayo”
“Kanayo who?” you ask.
She scratches her head then tells you that she doesn’t know. You rinse your face and your mouth, then walk out through the doors beside the living room. Franca follows you as if to investigate. You look through the slit in the gate then slide the bolt of the pedestrian gate open.
“Oh my goodness! What a surprise Kanayo”
“My First Lady. Come here” he says, circling you in a hug.
He does look like the Kanayo from memory. He still smells the way he did when he held you and gave you your first kiss. But now he is rounder and his tummy pushes stubbornly against the white shirt he is wearing. He looks older, like a man. And as he takes a long look at you, you imagine that you too must look like a woman after all those years.
“My First Lady”, he says again with a look of shock on his face.
“You have rounded out”, he whispers and you blush.
“But you are still shy”, and then he laughs his throaty tenor laughter.
“Stop it, my father might be listening”
“And you are still daddy’s girl. How is his wife and your brothers?”
“They are all good”, you say.
“Come with me. Let us go to Cold Stone for ice cream”
For some reason, you almost make to think up an excuse but instead you say “okay”. You are a grown woman now, no longer your father’s little child. You ask Franca to lock the gate and her smile is gratuitous as she looks at you and then him.
“That’s me”, he says pointing at an orange Jeep Wrangler parked to the far left corner of your father’s plot of land.
“Wow big man Kanayo”
“Says the girl working for an oil company in Canada”
“Trust me it’s not all its cracked up to be”
He takes the road by your old secondary school and he tells you of the teachers who are still there after all these years. Mr Okafor. Mr Etuk. Mrs Nwokoro with her pointy shoes. Even the principal although he now bears visible signs of aging. As he points things out you steal glances at his body, admiring him. While you hate his rounded belly, you like the way his face turned out, the way he lets his facial hair grow, the way his nose is still long and pointed, the way he still chuckles. His chuckle takes you back to when you were thirteen and he was the new student and he asked you to be his Valentine. You said yes because he was the only one bold enough to ask. And because of his soft eyes.
“I did not know there was a Cold Stone franchise here”, you say as he drives into the complex.
“It’s new, like two or three years old. You know all we do here is consume. Every western thing has to have a franchise here”.
“Wait!” he says, as you try to unlock your side of the door.
He gets out of the car and opens your door for you.
“Still the charmer”, you say and his face turns into a grin that makes you thirteen again.
“Still my First Lady”, he whispers.
“Don’t even do that Kanayo. You forgot about me all these years”.
“No I didn’t. I kept tabs. I heard you were with some white dude so I backed off”.
“How do you hear all these things? Who even told you I was back?”
“I have my sources”
You join the queue with Kanayo leading the way. People your age hang out with friends on the queue while families wait together, dressed up in their best outfits. Kanayo looks you all over and when you catch him he grins and looks forward. He dangles his car keys from his index finger while he places the other hand in his pocket. He looks like a grown man, like a man who could go to a woman’s village to ask for her to be his wife. How did you all become adults?
Soon you are at the front of the queue and he is paying for your mint and chocolate ice-cream and his cookies and cream waffle cone. You two try to find a spot to sit. The place is teeming with people. When you were younger, there wasn’t this much variety. All you had were Mr Biggs and Tantalizers, the latter even being a rather new addition. But now every corner is filled with another joint – Tastee Fried Chicken, Dominoes pizza, Coldstones. People in Festac seem to love food.
“Kanayo you forgot me”, you suddenly blurt out, surprising yourself.
“Ada how could I forget you?”
“You forgot me”, you insist, while you dig into your ice cream. With your spoon you play around with your rocks of chocolate and then you lift them to your mouth.
“You never called. You never emailed. Once I was gone that was it”. You did not expect to feel so pained but here you go feeling something after having forgotten him for so long.
“Ada I was trying to settle down like you. I didn’t know I would get into school in Ukraine after all those years of trying to get into university here. Once I got there I focused solely on school. Fine boy like me, I didn’t even date until final year”
He chuckles, and you chuckle back because you are not sure what to do, and because him not dating is unfathomable to you.
“Well that’s past”, you say.
“What’s past, us?”
He still likes to get a reaction from you.
“Nothing” you say.
“So do you speak Ukrainian?”, you ask to change the topic.
“Enough to get by”
The security guard opens the door for him.
“Good afternoon sir”, he says.
“Good afternoon”, Kanayo replies.
Kanayo drops the cups of ice cream on a table near the door. You sit down on the side of the table that faces the main road while he sits down facing you and the door. Soon the conversation flows into your other former classmates and where they now are.
“Sikirat got married last year. Did you hear?”, you ask him.
“Of course, I ran into her at the bank and she invited me. It was fun”.
“Are you serious? I have missed a lot”
“It’s okay. Trust me with the number of our classmates getting married I cannot even keep count anymore. There will be more weddings to go to”.
“So when are you getting married? You are now a big man too” you ask, teasing him with your eyes.
“When I find the right woman”
“Oh lies. You want me to believe you are single. A whole smooth talker like you?”
“It’s true. The last girl I dated, I thought it was it. The real thing. The one. It went really well. But she wanted a man that was ready and I wasn’t. I wanted to wait a bit longer to get my life together first before getting married. So she dumped me for a rich IJGB like you.”
“IJGB?”, you ask
“Yes. IJGB. I Just Got Back. An American gonna wonna”
“You’re not serious at all”, you say.
He sighs, and fiddles with the clumps of cookie dough in his ice cream like a gardener hoeing out rocks from the soil.
“Isn’t it funny how you wake up and you are grown? Suddenly it is time to be serious. To work. To marry. You know I can’t get over how fast that happens”
“It is Kanayo. But you are a man, you have more time. I feel like I should have it all figured out by now, be planning a wedding and have a stable career. But I won’t be doing any of that for a long time”
“Yea I feel you. But you are a beautiful woman. Don’t let the pressure get to you. You know I always admired you in school. You made me want to sit up, to study, to work hard. You were always so so hardworking and so gorgeous”
“Don’t flatter me”
“I mean it. So if I may ask, what happened to you and your white man?”
“He left me for a blonde girl”
“I know right? See my life. They were shooting cocaine together, then went motorcycle riding afterward and they had an accident. So I found all this out in the emergency room of a hospital at 2 a.m. If they never had that accident I wouldn’t know he was cheating or that he uses cocaine.”
“I am sorry”
“It’s okay. I’m grateful I found out now not later”
“How did you like moving back home?”, you ask him.
“It has definitely been worth it. At first I had to adjust to so much. You know after I left I was away for five whole years. I didn’t even come back to visit like you do. So when I came back it was a big jolt. But I am glad I am home.”
“Being home grounds you, you know. Out there you can take so many things for granted. Here you can’t. I got disconnected from myself all those years, from my religion, my culture, my values. I was just taking life and things for granted. Here life is different. You cannot just take it or people at face value. But it is also richer”
“Yea. It felt like reconstructing myself all over again. I had to be wise, street smart, read people, be alert. I had to build new networks, navigate adult life. It’s one of the best decisions I have made. It’s like dying and coming back to life, you know?”
“Yes. I understand what you mean”
“Why do you ask? Are you thinking of moving back too?”
“I mean there is something nice about being on your own soil. With your own people. Besides not much is keeping me outside anymore. And maybe that’s a good thing.”
“You should come back. There’s no place like home”
“People think it will be hard and it is. But you’ll be fine. “
When you are done your ice cream, you clean your lips with the serviette then throw it into the bin. The security guard opens your car door and then opens Kanayo’s. He directs Kanayo enthusiastically and while Kanayo reverses with one hand, he fiddles with the corners of his car for some spare change. As he leaves he passes the tip to the security guard.
“Thank you sir”, the man shouts and waves from beneath the yellow umbrella he is holding.
As he gets to the gate of your house, Kanayo parks, then looks at you smiling.
“Can I take you to lunch sometime?”
“Sure. We can grab lunch together sometime”
“No I mean a date. Can I take you on a lunch date?”
“Kanayo don’t you think it’s too early for your games?”
“Why games? I am not here for games either.”
“I haven’t seen you in like seven years. I am not that naive Ada of years back. I have changed”
“I have changed too.”
“I just want to breathe a little. I need time to heal for now. Me time”
“I understand. Okay let’s not call it a date. Just lunch”
“You are not even convincing”, you say and laugh.
“I will call you”, he says
“Do as you please”
“You are still stubborn Ada. I like it” he smiles and turns on the car.
That weekend Aunty Nneka shows up for the children’s birthday earlier than you expect. She still rings the bell as if she is ringing it to save her life and once you hear the shrill sound you already know it is her.
“Kpai kpai kpai. Ndeewo nu ooo”, she says, knocking on the staircase.
The twins come running down and you follow them behind.
“Hei, my girl and the birthday boys. I am overwhelmed with love. Who do I even hug first?”
“Ladies first”, you say, rushing to hug her first. You rest on her voluptuous breasts, like you rested on them to cry the day you saw your period and the day you had hoped to take the first prize in mathematics but ended up being beat by Offiong.
She takes a step back to observe you.
“You lost weight. I hope it is not because of that fool that you haven’t been eating?”
Her bulging eyes pop out, looking fiercely into yours. Every time she looks at you she stirs in you some sudden and certain urge to confess, to tell the truth.
“Aunty I actually added weight”, you say, showing her your arms.
“Which weight? You look like a bonga fish”, she says.
“Anyway”, she says, waving off her own line of thought, “you are home now. I will fatten you”.
“Aunty you are looking very good. You don’t even age”
“My darling are you serious?” she asks, her eyes popping again.
She twirls around so you can flatter her some more.
“Yes, aunty. You look amazing”
“Haha!”, she laughs loudly, then walks into the kitchen as you follow behind.
In the kitchen Chioma and Franca are busy preparing food for the party, Chioma turning the rice in the deep aluminum pots and Franca dicing a green bell pepper. Chioma hurriedly wipes her hands when she notices Aunty Nneka, then serves her a piece of fried chicken in a saucer for her to taste.
“It’s very good my wife. Very good”. She sits on the stool beside the fridge with her feet wide apart.
You offer to help but Chioma and Aunty Nneka refuse, so you sit beside Aunty Nneka on another stool.
Soon the food is ready and while Franca sets the table, Chioma pulls out a large football themed cake from the fridge. You go upstairs to find your camera as the twins run toward the dining table. When you come down, everyone is seated on the dining table waiting for you and you seat on the right side of your father in the chair which was reserved for you. You pull in your chair and your father says to say a prayer.
Aunty Nneka volunteers. She has a way of praying that enters your bones. It is not the Western God, the gentle one, the meek, loving one. Hers is a fierce God who rains thunder, who attacks enemies, who fights, who can survive and hustle in the hot sun. The rhetoric of it might be bothersome but being here, feeling the heat, the traffic, the complications of Lagos life, you cannot deny that catharsis is necessary. A simple, predictable and always good God is too one dimensional to solve any problems here. A God like Aunty Nneka’s, visceral and vicious and vindictive is necessary. So she calls down fire and you too shout “Holy Ghosttt fire!”. She prays a special prayer for the boys and you open one eye to see them grinning.
Franca sits at the table to have dinner with you all that day. She is wearing a yellow lace dress that she changed into after cooking. Her face is dusted with white powder, her lips glossed. She smells of body mist, light and fresh and young. All she does is laugh bashfully at the banter that goes from you to Chioma to your aunty to your father.
Chioma soon gets a knife and the boys make a wish then cut the cake, while you bring out their gifts.
“Surprise!”, you shout, handing them two big gifts wrapped in green wrapping paper. Your father hands them each an envelope full of money to buy the latest video game they’d been pining for. Aunty Nneka goes beneath the staircase and comes back with two pairs of Nike sneakers which she hands them.
As they struggle with the wrapping paper, you study your father who smiles intently and earnestly at them. It strikes you, all that energy he focuses on loving. Loving hard, even if wrong. Your eyes shift to your aunty with her voluptuous bosom and boisterous personality and how both envelope the people she loves. And then to Franca and the way she makes her transient home with your family. Finally, you smile at Chioma, this woman who turned your father’s life around without even trying, who knows how to hustle, make a home full of love, and somehow do it all with grace.
You belong here, to these people and this place as crazy and complicated as you are.
Ebele Mọgọ is a story teller, a scientist, and an innovator. Her writing has been published in the following places: Newfound, Third Point Press, Munyori Literary Magazine, Stockholm review of literature, Susan the Journal, The Offing, Saraba magazine, Tap Lit, Narrative Northeast, Brittle Paper, the Rising Phoenix, Interartive, among other places. She is on Twitter as @ebyral
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