Calico

Autumn has brought dead leaves and new beginnings. She watches quietly as students scatter and chatter on their first day of classes. They walk from one building to another, maps in hand, wearing plaid shirts and sneakers. She shakes off the instinct to think of them as children. Some will find themselves here. Others will drown. Some will begin one way and end another.

The nights are growing shorter and apple picking is around the corner. Years ago, she and her flatmates would load up the car and drive for miles until they arrived an an orchard; the air fragrant and fresh. Rows and rows and rows of apples from Cortland to Gala to McIntosh. They always took more than they needed and baked apple crisps and pies. Nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla would linger on their coats for days.

It is so distant a memory that looking back feels like walking into a tunnel. It is time for lunch and although she considers sitting in the grass, the impracticalities are numerous. The breeze will sweep dust and pollen into her sandwich, her top will ride up, and she will see someone who knows her. She has stayed long enough at this university for that to be a given. She wants to be quiet. Talking to others has been exhausting lately.

Her sandwich is a grilled ham and brie panini. How English of her, she thinks. She can hear her mother’s voice in her head, half-teasing

‘Nne, i wu so onye ocha.’ You have become a white person.

She has indeed become white. White enough to eat sandwiches and not rice and stew for lunch like a proper Nigerian. White enough to sleep in and have brunch on Sunday, sans church. White enough to let Dave move in with her.

Just then, a text from him comes in. He is asking if she wants to join him and new work friends for drinks at 7. She does not. It will be another round of “where are you from” and “tell us about yourself” and “you don’t speak with an accent”. They mean well, she knows. But she is tired. Something somewhere deep inside her is aching, longing for rest.

Dave’s entry into her life took her by surprise. Surprised still is she because he hasn’t left. Despite her foul mouth and grudge keeping. Despite her scowls and silent treatment when she does not get her way. Despite her low blows when they argue. He is still here. He loves her. He fascinates her, mostly. As much as a little bird perched and chirping on a window pane would.

He works in investment banking, like his father and his father before him. Last Christmas, as usual, the conversation veered into major markets and predictions for the new year. His four brothers had their women at the table too. Jeff, Sam, Paul, and Ryan had effectively brought home four iterations of their mother. Her sweetness quickly soured when she felt challenged, even on the smallest things. Like whether sugar had a place in cornbread. Anna, whose family owned and operated a ranch in Texas, said that it did. That her family’s recipe included sugar and on and on.

‘Thank you, Anna. Pass the wine, would you?’

Edith was old money. One of those to whom it did not occur that wealth did not give them a monopoly on truth.

Dave is older by two years. But so unassuming. She met him on the train on her way from Lewiston to an African store in Harrisburg. She was reading Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come when their eyes locked. Somto looked away at first and looked up again when she felt his eyes on her.

‘Hi,’ he mouthed when she looked up.

‘Hi,’ she mouthed back and looked away, shooing him with her eyes.

But his gaze lingered. She looked up. He moved swiftly. The train was barely half full; pockets of people scattered around. She flashed the smile she reserved for tellers and waiters. Endearing and plastic. Plastic and endearing.

‘Is it true?’ he asked, pointing at the book.

‘For some people?’ she replied.

‘What separates “some” from the rest of us?’

‘What separates East from West?’

‘Do you always answer questions with questions?’

‘Is that a problem?’

She was smiling now, as was he.

‘I’m Dave.’

‘Somto.’

‘Sumta. What does it mean?’

Somto. Join me,’ she said.

‘No way! How did I know that?’

What a lovely man. That is the same thing she thought when he told her that he loved her a year later. And again when he asked her to move in with him.

No, she told him. But he could move in with her, she said. She will rearrange her life for no one. Even him. Even though he has a soft place in her heart. She will make room for him, but she will not pack her life neatly into boxes and plant herself elsewhere.

She had always known that she would break his heart. She knew it that day on the train. He was too good. Too unblemished. Too divine.

The answer again is no. Tonight, she will be going over the results of her qualitative analysis with Raul, her TA.

It is a lie. She will be at the cinema eating overpriced pretzels and watching Love Jones. She is holding onto any chance to live in her head a little longer. She sees Deb when the film ends.

‘Sumta! You’re here!’

‘After all this time, Deb? Just call me Santa already,’ Somto says.

‘Oh, don’t mind me. I’ve missed you.’

She means it. Heart of gold. Deb was the baker in the flat. Pies, strudels, cakes, and souffles. All the girls blamed Deb for their weight gain.

They embrace. She has been smoking again.

‘I thought you were on the patch.’

‘I was. I got fed up.’

‘What will I do with you?’ Somto says, pulling her cheeks.

‘How’s Dave?’

‘He’s great. Out with work friends tonight.’

‘You’re all alone. Good thing I found you then.’

Deb locks arms with Somto and walks her to her car. They are quiet save for their heels clicking and clacking on the pavement. They walk past a cafe, Lionel’s butcher shop, a convenience store, and a movie rental place. They walk past old buildings and failing streetlights in an even, unhurried pace.

Lionel is not in today. His shop is the only one in the area that carries fresh cuts of oxtail and goat meat. He went back home to Jamaica last year, 17 years after leaving it for England. His father had died. Lionel had told her many times that he wanted to show her his home one day.

‘My lady, I know you will like it.’

He knew about Dave. They met once when he helped her with her bags while Dave came around with the car. She saw Lionel size him up when they shook hands. Behind his polite smile and gracious bow was a man studying his competition. He knew that they would never be but that did not keep him from trying.

Deb is one of Somto’s oldest friends. Silence has meaning to them. They converse in it, hopping from topic to topic, tapping where it still doesn’t make sense, slow dancing where it hurts. Deb squeezes Somto’s arm tighter just before she says that something is not fine.

A pause. The clicking stops.

‘He died. My father died.’

The smoking makes sense.

‘Oh, Deb. I’m sorry.’

It was the cancer that ended him. It came back for the second time and was spreading fast. Deb’s father did not want treatment. He wanted to spend his last days surrounded by love.

‘They say that knowing before it happens helps. It is supposed to help you make room for grief. It is supposed to help you button up your life jacket as you prepare to dive into sorrow. What they don’t tell you is how the fear of the pain that arrives with the loss first overshadows then weakens you. They don’t say that you will begin to mourn what is still breathing. But you do.’

The air is colder and stiller now. They continue to walk.

‘I wish I saw you more often. You are good for me.’

Somto wraps her in her arms. She wants the embrace to absorb Deb’s pain.

‘Sumta, you will break me,’ Deb chuckles.

Tears well up in their eyes.

‘Are you angry?’

‘At myself. For before.’

“Before” is when Deb and her father did not speak. He and her mother divorced when she was five. Then he married a woman who gave her hell. She tried to tell her father. He couldn’t see it. He did not see who she was until the euphoria of new beginnings ended. New things get old. Did he not know? Deb was gone by then. She was living with her mother who taught at an academy for boys. It would be years before he would swallow his shame and find them. She declared that she was fatherless when he showed up at their door and began his speech. She said rebuffed him for another 7 years.

Somto’s drive home is silent, punctuated by tears. She hesitates before she goes in. Dave is not home. She begins to peel off her clothes as she climbs the stairs. Coat first, then shoes, bag on the floor, blouse on the staircase. A hot shower and sleep is what she needs.

Just as she climbs into bed, she hears the door. He is home. How can affection and indifference coexist so peacefully? Doesn’t he notice? The distance is gaping. What is wrong with her? Should she just end things? She will tell him soon.

He joins her, circling his arms around her waist. He plants a kiss on her forehead.

Tomorrow is “soon.” She realizes this after Dave makes breakfast the next morning. French toast, sausages, and eggs. He is pouring the orange juice when she knows it for sure that she does not want this arrangement anymore. He is good. He is everything. But he is not hers. Not anymore. Maybe he never was. She sees it now. Had he been a placeholder and she a spectator in this thing? Lately, they had barely communicated beyond the mechanics of their day.

‘What pizza should we order?’

‘Please grab milk from the store.’

Television, goings and comings, and romps in the sheets filled up what was left. Was it that she no longer wanted this thing they had created or that she wanted more? She was tired of love that did not satisfy. She was tired of nibbling. That’s what it was. She wanted to feast. Anything else would suffocate her. Can you imagine? Feeling both suffocated and hungry because of the same thing.

She looks at him. Looking at him feels like she is losing taste in her mouth.

‘Butter, please.’

‘I want us to end things.’ .

First he is silent. Then he scoffs.

At last, air reaches her lungs.

Romance as an Obstacle

To be honest, I struggled with this piece because I did not know where to start. As far back as I know, there has never been a time when I did not view romance as an obstacle. Until now. Maybe romance is the wrong word to use. But I think love is also the wrong word to use. For these past years away from home, I have been loved. I have known love from God, my family, my friends, and my teachers. And I describe love as wanting what is the highest good for someone else.

But romance or romantic love has been the thing I have shut myself away from. Except in 2015. And again in 2017. But that was neither here nor there. In fact, maybe this title is inaccurate. I have always known that love and romantic partnership can be a source of joy and strength. But my parents raised me to choose myself first. When I reflect on some of the males by whom I have been surrounded, I may have had to temper my ambition, my goals, and consider theirs.

I have feared propelling someone forward while leaving myself behind. I had seen many women do that. I had seen “love” consume them; swallow them whole, chew them up, and spit them out. I had seen “love” bruise and disorient them. Although that was not love, I did not know it. I did not want that to be my story, so I played it safe. My parents had invested too much, given too much, denied themselves too much for me to squander any ounce of my dreams.

Now I see that they were not wrong in what they taught me. I was wrong in how I interpreted their lessons. I did not realize this flaw in interpretation and could not recognize this misunderstanding until a few months ago. In taking a break from school, the one thing I had thrown myself into utterly, I began to see what stood there all along. I had always thought of love and ambition as mutually exclusive. I still don’t know why.

Maybe it is because I tend to see in absolutes. I had friends who were in loving romantic relationships with others and still excelled in areas where I prioritized. Somehow, I didn’t think it applied to me. In hindsight, that makes such little sense. It reminds me of the time I visited a therapist and confessed that I did not like having little treats and relaxing because I would spoil myself and forget how to work hard. I remember the pause that just hung in the air and the small smile that made me reconsider what I had just said.

‘Okay. That makes no sense’, I said.

‘You don’t just forget how to work hard. That is an enduring character trait’, she replied.

I agreed then and I agree now.

Why did I fear that the person coming into my life was going to subtract from instead of add to it?

Why didn’t the fact that I had seen love and stride convince me?

Why did I not see this until now?

My ability to analyze and plan is both my superpower and my Achilles heel. And I love my mind. But there is freedom in letting go. Entrusting my heart will be to someone who knows its value. Events in recent months have shown me how easily my heart is broken. I forgot that about myself. But calcifying should not be my response. The appropriate response should be to be wiser, enjoy life, and trust that God will order my steps. For a personality like mine, letting go is hard. But it can be learnt.

Who says only vampires are on the other side of the door? Angels could be standing there too.

Photo: Ekaterina via Pexels

Flat Foot

My conversation with Kide, the Uber driver from Congo, slowly unwrapped itself. I was in Ottawa for two nights and stayed in Gatineau, a city on the northern bank of the Ottawa River. The flight was smooth; we were enveloped in dreamy clouds and on solid ground soon again. Evening turned into night and my eyes grew heavy.

The grey sedan arrived in enough time for me to scan the reviews for the driver. I saw him when he stopped at the light and crossed to the other side to board. I was in no particular mood for talking and planned to say a polite “hello”, enjoy the ride in silence, and take in the sights. I liked were I was. Ottawa. The seat of power. The city felt like it was heaving a sigh of relief as elections had just come to an end. It was big but not sprawling. I was taken with its historic buildings and paced busyness. The people carried on as though they had places to be, but could spare a minute or two to help. I walked past one man in a gas station whose body odour reminded me of the traders under the hot sun in Balogun market in Lagos. I walked past another who called me his sister and was from Kenya.

Kide was short and dark; his head shaven and beardless. The pleasantries ended as the ride began.

‘How was your day?’, he asked

‘Why don’t you go first? How was your day?’, I said

He chuckled and then told me that his day was good. When I probed further, he told me that he volunteered with people with disabilities earlier in the day. After I told him how my day went, he asked where I lived. I said that I lived on the East Coast and that I had moved there for school.

‘Your family must be rich.’

‘Yes’, I said, laughing.

‘Rich in love, rich in faith, rich in hope’, I continued.

Kide shook his head as if I had said something wrong.

‘I mean money. Did your parents pay your school fees with faith?’, he asked with all seriousness.

‘No’, I replied. ‘We are comfortable.’

My answer confirmed what he suspected. He told me not to waste my parents’ money or disappoint them, and reminded me of students who were squandering their tuition fees on new cars and parties. I felt like he was restraining himself. Like he was going to tell me not to get pregnant out of wedlock but stopped himself. After I told him that I had my own ambitions and was not taking anything for granted, he asked if I was a Christian.

‘Yes’, I said. I regretted that for a moment. I wanted to see what would happen if I said that I wasn’t. I also had the thought that he would not tell me all these things if I was white. This tendency to counsel strangers is a thing that is decidedly African, I thought.

The ride continued. He asked me how long I had lived in the country and I told him. I asked him the same question and found that he had lived here for twice as long as I had. When I teased that he must be a rich man, having worked all these years, his voice rose slightly when he said that he had five children and had been working only for the same bills to claim his bi-weekly pay.

I told him that I ultimately wanted to go home.

‘Why don’t you stay here and build a life?’, he asked.

There it was again. This telling strangers how to live.

‘Canada is nice and I like it. But it is not home.’

‘Except there is a man waiting for you at home’, Kide questioned.

I let him know that there was no such man and that my desire was fuelled solely by my aspirations. He found that unbelievable.

‘What if you meet someone here and marry and he does not want to go with you?’

‘I don’t believe in springing surprises on people. The issue of where to live is major. We will talk about it before we marry. And if we do not agree on where to live, there will be no marriage.’

‘Okay. But are you seeing somebody?’

‘I’m not’, I said.

Alarm rose from his chest through his throat into his mouth when he asked me this next question.

‘Are you selfish?!’

‘Selfish?’, I asked, taken aback.

That one surprised me. I am conscious of my flaws and selfishness is at the bottom of the list.

‘No. I’m not selfish. My self-improvement is my priority.’

Kide was now engrossed in full-throated laughter.

‘I’m focusing on making myself a better person. I believe in marriage and I love love. I admire my parents’ marriage and I hope to have something like that one day.’

‘I don’t want to rush into anything’, I concluded quietly.

‘No’, he said in agreement. Perhaps that was the only point on which we agreed. Perhaps he was tired of me and just wanted the conversation to end.

The encounter left me thinking. Choosing to develop oneself before sharing one’s life with another being considered selfish baffled and bothered me. I did not feel anger. I felt pity. Not just for him but for many others who thought the same. Maybe I should just accept that people will live their lives as they see fit and I should live mine as I want. But we don’t abandon people who want to hurt themselves knowingly or otherwise. We counsel, we admonish, we befriend.

Sometimes I forget that people want different things for their lives. Sometimes I forget that people will learn only after they suffer.

But I hope all the women and men who read this will choose themselves, heal themselves, and love themselves before they do the same for another. And I hope that we do not put ourselves through needless pain and unnecessary suffering to love another. I hope we do not starve ourselves to feed another. I hope we do not bruise ourselves to heal another. Because even we are worth loving, worth defending, and worth prioritizing.

Open Letter to My Father

Dear Daddy,

My first day at school took you by complete surprise. I am told that while you dropped Nna off at school, I wandered into a class, sat, and refused to leave. You didn’t force me to come home with you and simply returned at the close of day.

You have always known this little girl’s heart. In that moment, you came to the realization that I would veer into many unchartered waters and you knew to let me be.

It was you who showed me how to be bold, to speak up, to ask questions. You showed me how to love God and persevere in prayer. You have prayed me into my destiny and covered me, as the priest of our home.

Your love made me unafraid, it made me sure of who I was. With you I was free to be me, to say what I thought. With you, I have known something I have never known with anyone else, security.

When you walk into a room, nothing could possibly go wrong. Your love gave me wings and your unshakeable presence taught me to use them. The gift of your name gave me something to defend, to uphold.

As my friend, you showed me the power of conversation and its ability to shift mindsets and transform hearts.

Your wisdom, your wit, your heart, and all that makes you who you are, I adore.

Thank you for surviving. Thank you for surviving and thriving through all life has thrown at you. Thank you for surviving the Civil War for me, for us. You are the rose that blossomed from concrete.

Because of you, I know what I deserve. Because of you, delighting in God’s love for me is easy.

For holding my hand when my heart was unsteady, for giving me jackets laden with your warmth and scent, for lending me your faith when mine vanished, I thank you.

For loving my mind just as much as you love my heart, I thank you. For trusting me to honor your legacy and your name far away from home, I thank you. For teaching me the virtue of hardships and their ability to produce resilient souls, I thank you. For holding me in my pain and tickling me to get me out of it, I thank you. For letting me play doctor/fashion guru/small mommy/lawyer/politician/journalist/personal assistant/banker, I thank you.

Because of you and mama, our tiny home has laughter baked into its walls.

May your spirit never fade. May your wife be a fruitful vine and your children like olive branches around God’s table.

May all the seeds of kindness you have sown in all directions, return to you bountifully.

And may you know, always and forever, that you are loved, honored, and will never walk alone.

Always your little,

Manma

Rain. Mist. Seas.

Flow but never lose your substance

Bend through creeks, flow into lakes

Cause floods, quench raging fires

Carry thunder

Clean, absolve, make new

Renew broken spirits

Refresh tired bodies

Signal the beginning of a new season

Cause life to flourish

Sustain it

Flow but never lose your substance

 

photo credit: Milo McDowell