There were times that you felt at peace here. Those days that your mother’s voice would serenade your ears with beautiful stories of her childhood as she ran a wooden comb through your hair, patting it down in braids, your head nestled in the wrappers that covered her thighs. Your mother always smelt of freshly cut onions and coconut oil. She would reach for the spot behind your ears that tickled when she felt you tugging on her wrists with your little fists, trying to disentangle her fingers from your coarse hair, and you would shriek, your throat filled with giggles, momentarily distracted from the pain. Your hair never stayed soft and fluffy like cotton-wool balls, how mama’s own was.
It was on one of those days that Mama Amaechi had run into the compound, her own wrappers loosening as she held her dangling breasts with one arm and her head with the other.
“Nne, o gini?” mama had asked as she gently removed your head from her lap.
You wished, many years after, that Mama Amaechi had stumbled on something, anything, as her legs moved quickly in the direction of the compound — stumbled and broken her neck before she reached mama — because it was she who brought the news that upturned the peaceful sail of your life.
“Did you hear me?” Nenye prods. You softly shake your head, remembering that your friend is visiting and speaking to you. You have been having these spells for a while now. Times when you randomly space out of conversations, become less conscious of your surroundings, lost in the mangled thoughts of your past. It happened two weeks ago when you went to get milk from Abu’s kiosk down the road and Abu was raving about how it had been a while since you came to “this area.” It happened again last week as you stopped at Ngozi’s shop, asking for some sleeping tablets because you could not sleep at nights. Ngozi had screamed when she saw you, commenting that you had grown fatter, that your skin had lightened, and asking why you shaved your head, when you “go go back house make Oga no miss you too much.”
“I said Anita has just returned from Dubai with that her new man. That woman must have a problem. Maybe a spirit husband,” Nenye repeats. She says the word ‘new man’ in a way that travels forcefully to you and whips your ears with the disapproval that her words bear. You often wondered how the four of you — Nenye, who was heavily influenced by whatever her pastor-mummy said; Anita, who was polyamorous and dreaded the idea of marriage; Tonya, who was queer, and you, You — came to be friends. Nenye would complain for many hours, your ears throbbing, about how Anita needed to settle down with one man instead of “preening and posturing like an overaged hen all over the place with different men.” She would never understand “this modern-day, western concept of polyamory. God forbid.”
You want to kindly chastise Nenye about talking badly about Anita, as you have always done. To remind her that she has never noticed any problem with her brother-in-law, Nduka, a known ‘womanizer’ and ‘sugar daddy’ who is unmarried at fifty-five years old. So, you grin slowly, hoping that it would kick-start your words with as much mindfulness as you want and cushion its weight. But you stop yourself. Allowing your lips close over your teeth, and your words sink back into your stomach. You did not want to remind Nenye of your situation. You would always wonder how Nenye, with her big Bible and litany of sermons was so accepting of Tonya’s sexuality, but not Anita’s decision to stay single.
“Anyways, may God find a good man for her, oh. You know how scarce men are,” she adds.
“Men are not scarce. They are everywhere,” you want to argue. Instead, you sigh. You can feel the disturbing stirrings of a migraine. You need to stop by Ngozi’s shop again to buy those sleeping tablets alongside some panadol for the headache that you will soon begin to feel.
It is till 6pm before Nenye leaves, but not before she looks solemnly into your eyes while holding your hands and begs you to pack your things and leave with her, away from this old house with its musty smell and creaking chairs. A smile blossoms within you, stretching out till it envelopes your face and you remember that Nenye, with her blind piety, her Pentecostal ideals of Christianity sold costly to her by her pastor-daddy and pastor-mummy, is a good woman. Even Anita would agree.
You rush out of the house at 8pm to Ngozi’s shop, knowing that it is her girl who is there and not her. That is why you waited till 8pm when she would have gone home because her husband did not like her staying out past 7pm, not even her shop which was in front of their compound. Ngozi asked questions that you could not answer, irritating questions that prickled your skin with the knowledge that your answers would spread all over the street as naturally as air, filling the nostrils of those interested and those uninterested with candid details of your life, so you often tried to avoid her.
You walk slowly back home. Mumbling a vague apology to the stranger who you just accidentally hit with your left shoulder. He stops briefly and mutters an angry: “Madam, you no dey see road?” before he continues on his way. That voice. You recognize it. You want to turn around and tap the man’s back, look closely at him when he responds. But he has gone too far. You would reach home and remember his name. Francis. Scoffing sadly when you remember that night in Francis’ apartment.
It was raining and you had nowhere to go to. Mama had had one of her episodes again. She locked you out, shooing you away from the window as you cried, begged, and waited fruitlessly till a spark of familiarity entered her eyes. Francis welcomed you in. You did not trust him completely, but he had always been a gentleman, which was further proven by his offer to sleep on the floor while you slept in the bed. You disagreed. You did not want to inconvenience him more than you were doing already. After a lot of back and forth, he agreed. You had been jolted up from slumber hours later from a hard bulge pressing into your chiffon skirt and an arm banded around your waist. You struggled against the arm, against Francis’ voice telling you that he just wanted to rub it in between your buttocks. It? What was it? You struggled until he begged you to just hold it in your hand for few minutes. He cried, his face wet with tears, that he was suffering from a peculiar disease that affected only men, that he would die soon if you did not touch it. So you did. But you never spoke to Francis again.
It is 10pm. You place the sleeping tablets and a sachet of water on the mat close to you. Your eyes zoom in on an old photo. You reach for it, caressing the faces frozen on it. A drop of water falls on one of the faces in the photo and you quickly swipe at it with the hem of your gown, looking up to see if the ceiling has begun leaking. You remember that it is not raining so you quickly swipe at your face, too. You look back at the photo, wondering why, like the faces of your parents, time had not frozen in that moment when their lips had been pulled back into a wide smile, their eyes twinkling with affection as your father wrapped his arm fondly around your mother’s neck.
It is tomorrow that you have to go to the therapist that Tonya has paid for you to visit. You had told her it was unnecessary, that African people did not need to undergo a series of psychoanalyses from strange people who only wanted to hear your gist. She looked at you worriedly, with almost pity, and that was what you had not wanted to see in her eyes. So, you agreed, rolling your eyes as you concluded that you would only show up for a session and you would be terribly inexpressive. You snatch up the tablets and the sachet water.
The therapist is not at all what you anticipated. She’s a middle-aged woman who has a constant air of joviality that is sometimes pushed back to accommodate sobriety. You almost expect her to be excessively critical, sawing through you with catalogues of censure. She reminds you of your mother except that she looks nothing like mama. Where mama’s body folded into softness, hers was lean and toned. Mama’s skin glistened like roasted groundnuts, hers shone a dark brown, like cocoa powder. Her office smelt of lavenders. Her voice sounded like she just gulped down gallons of fresh palmwine. Sweet and potent.
“My name is Ndidi Hakeem. You can call me Ndidi. What may I call you?” She starts.
“Kevwe,” you reply. Stiffly.
She continues to ask basic questions, simple questions. You answer. But when she asks of your relationship status, you pause. You do not quite know how to respond. She looks up at you and smiles mildly. Her smile touches something behind your eyes and they begin to sting and itch. You scrub them. It is at that moment that you confirm that you would come back to this office. Not to talk about heavy things, but to bask in the comfort of her presence, sitting quietly and smelling the fresh scent of lavenders. That is what you do for the first few weeks.
But something changed in the fourth week. You wonder what changed. Hours later, you would mull over the psychological mechanisms that interacted with your throat in that cool office, making you open your mouth to whisper: “I cheated on my husband. He killed my lover. He almost killed me.” But it would not stop you from going back.
You would relate to Ndidi how your mother had suffered from dementia after your father died. You would explain to her how you met him. Your husband. He was your father’s boss. He would come by the house to drop cartons of milk and cups of rice. It was until you were twenty-two, when your mother slept and never woke up, that he requested that you marry him. You would tell her of how angry you were at first. He was old, forty-four, and you were young. Just twenty-two. You had your whole life ahead of you. But he soothed your anger with promises. Empty ones.
You would stare blankly at your fingers, sitting straight as you shared details of how your husband had fondled you roughly on your wedding night, while repeating that he would take you to the heavens. He fumbled against your thighs until you heard his snores. Ndidi would barely speak, but you did not need her to speak.
It would be on the sixth week that you would tell her of Ifejika. Your mouth would tremble with repressed tears when you remember. It was Ifejika who had filled your mind with a twisted kind of glee, however fleeting, leaving no bitter modicum of space for you to reflect on the cries of newborn child that you had been forced to welcome the previous night. Your husband’s fifth child. Without any shame, you would beam as you tell her of how he made you sing with a wild sort of incoherence, how one time you thought you saw a very white light flashing before your eyes and you had panicked because you were always with him in the dark. But you would catch yourself immediately. There was no use beaming.
You would not recount the events that caused you to lose Ifejika, the brilliant pain that lanced through your heart, almost as brilliant as the red of Ifejika’s blood staining your hair. That one was too heavy for your mouth to relay.
Ndidi would nod as usual, listening intently. You would go back home after your session. Lay on your mat for a while before remembering that you had not gone to Ngozi’s shop in three weeks as you drifted to sleep.
Photo by I.am_nah on Unsplash (modified)