Two times over

Two times over
© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

Her heart is a giant vise in her chest, pumping so hard she will not be surprised if it caves a hole through her stomach. Her mouth is dry, her breath coming in puffs that evaporate right in front of her.

Julie holds the home kit up, counting off the seconds. When the blue line appears, she begins to weep, a jagged broken sound that comes from deep inside her belly.

When she is done, she looks at herself in the mirror. There are no changes yet, but she knows there will be plenty in the coming month. She hopes she’s sick a lot. She hopes she spits disgustingly, and blows up. She wants everyone to know she’s pregnant.

At thirty-nine, nine of which she’s been married to Ubong, being with child, and naturally at that, is an amazement, a miracle, a misnomer.

Opening the bathroom door quietly, she heads for their room at the end of the hallway. Ubong is still sleeping, oblivious to the news she’s going to share, to the joy that is bubbling in her heart.

“Sleepyhead.” She yanks the blanket off his head and begins to tickle him. He bolts out of sleep laughing but trying to look stern.

“What is it now, Julie? I expect you’d grow up by the time you’re sixty.”

“Actually I get to grow up now, seeing that I will soon be a mother. And you, daddy had better get up and get ready for the day.”

He stares at her, his mouth slightly opened. Then he pulls his lips shut and smiles a broad smile, one that is almost as wide and as warm as the rising sun.

“They called?” He asks as he gets off the bed. She can see his heart beating a staccato through his thin pajamas top. “We got through?”

“No, they didn’t call.”

The disappointment is a tangible thing in his eyes, clouding them so completely they turn almost black. He’s about to reprimand her about the costliness of her joke when it hits him.

“They didn’t call?”

“They didn’t.” She replies softly, the tears flooding her eyes again.

They was the orphanage. For eighteen months, they’d been on the waiting list to adopt, the decision made and sealed when a gynecologist told them they would never have children of their own. Three months ago, they’d moved to the top of the list, waiting with bated breath each day, wondering if that would be the day they got to be parents.

The nursery is ready, done in different shades of brown, as they are unsure what sex of child they would get. Julie’d wanted to use purple but Ubong said it was too loud. The brown was actually very nice and Julie spent several hours each day there re-arranging things, wondering, imagining what it felt like to be a mother, how it would feel to nurture a child.

“I bought a pregnancy kit yesterday.”

Ubong blinks and swallows hard. “I asked you to see a doctor. I thought you were ill or something.”

“So did I. Then the doctor asked if I might be pregnant. Didn’t want to face the embarrassment of hearing negative again from the lab, so I bought the kit.”

“You’re…are you…” He gulps, unable to complete his question.

“Yes. Yes. Yeah.”

He wraps her in something tighter than a bear hug, his eyes leaking, his mouth unable to close. Then he pushes her away. “The baby. I don’t want to hurt it.”

She rubs a hand over her belly. For two years, she’s given up the hope of being a natural mother, of ever suckling a child. Now…

The phone rings suddenly, a shrill sound that snaps her out of introspection. Ubong reaches for the receiver, says hello and listens intently, a look of complete stupefaction on his face. When the conversation is over, he faces Julie.

“The orphanage. There’s a baby girl, two weeks old. She’s ready to go. They want us to come for her today.”

“Jesus. Jesus!” Julie does not understand, cannot process what is happening.

“Our baby girl is waiting, Julie.”

Joy, chased by laughter, finally bubbles out of her throat. Suddenly she is racing out of the room. “I’ll get the baby’s things. You get the car.”

 

 

 

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Shattered

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

You were thirteen when you learned your family’s dark secret, and it just about tore you apart. That hot August afternoon, as you filled forms for the secondary school you would start the next month, you were dismayed when your mother carefully printed your sister’s name where her name should have been.

That evening, over a dinner of salty tears and a broken heart, you learnt that your mother was technically your grandmother; and that your sister, that one with the purple hair gone wild, was actually your biological mom.

You were conceived when she was fifteen, born when she was sixteen, in a place far far away from home, in a strange place where the pregnant girl and her mother had fled to and lived in during the time it took for her belly to swell and the baby to be pushed into the world.

Seven months after they were gone , they returned home…where the news had been carefully planted that your grandmother was unexpectedly pregnant, was going to be a mother again, and at the threshold of menopause too. What a miracle.

They returned with your baby self, whom your sister/mother gladly handed over. A year later while you were still in cotton diapers, she was out of the house, first living with an elder brother, then going off to the Uni.

You were the sixth person to learn the sordid tale. It had been a family secret for years, one that even cousins didn’t know about. The only people who knew the story were the father, the mother, the two elder siblings, and their wild child sister…who was now your mother. And now you.

You slept with the lights on that night, irrationally frightened that now that you knew the truth about who you really were, that you were going to disintegrate in the darkness and get blown away into the four corners of the earth. You curled yourself up in the foetal position, and sucked on your thumb for the first time in five years. You wet the bed.

The following morning, you almost couldn’t get out of bed. You were petrified that you were going to be sent to live with your sister/mother, who at twenty nine was still a wild child. She’d already had two husbands, another child, no job, and an insatiable liking for alcohol. You wondered why you couldn’t have been born to and of the elder sister, who was always crisply dressed, soft-spoken, a woman who was as elegant and as self-possessed as your grandmother was.

But you needn’t have worried. The family tried to keep on as usual, as if they hadn’t just shattered your life with a major secret, one that they fully expected you to now keep with them. They expected you to still call your affectionate grandmother mummy, your gruff grandfather daddy, and your purple-haired biological mother Sister Tobi.

You tried; you tried gamely. Perhaps if you pretended that the story had never been told to you, you wouldn’t continue to feel this tightening in your chest, this shortness of breath that overcame you from time to time.

You did try, but you lost your appetite for food and developed ulcers. Your mother poured gallons of milk down your throat per doctors’ orders and fed you food that was so spice-less it was borderline bland. She monitored your diet and made sure you took your drugs. But it didn’t help at all. The ulcer wouldn’t go away.

Then you developed the shakes as well. You would try to stand still, but you wouldn’t be able to; your hands and legs would shake and vibrate so much you had to find a seat. And even when you did find a seat, you had to sit on your hands to stop the world from seeing what a wreck you’d become.

For four months, you lived in a nebulous land, alternatively hating and loving the only mother you’d ever known, persistently indifferent towards your grandpa/father who’d never really had a use for you, and constantly hating Tobi, the wild child who had started this whole mess.

But thirteen is such a tenuous year on the road to adolescence, and there are far too many new experiences for a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood to experience that you eventually moved forward with your life. Secondary school was a whirlwind after the ordinariness of primary school, and to your surprise, you fell among the popular group in school. Being popular took so much effort and people skills that you didn’t have the time to be nervous anymore. The trendy clothes helped; you had about a thousand of them, guilt-gifts from Mummy, as you continued to call your grandmother.

That harmattan season, you were distracted by the loud silence of your body. As it had done all your life, it disappointed you yet again. You had always been a late bloomer; late to crawl, to talk, to walk, and to start school. You never thought that your body had the capacity to disappoint anymore, but it obviously did. Your best friend in school resumed school that January wearing a bra, as did several other girls in your group. But there you were, quarter to being fourteen, and yet embarrassingly flat-chested.

Every morning, you would stand naked in front of your bathroom mirror and stare at your chest unceasingly, mentally urging it to do what it was supposed to do. But it didn’t. It would stare back at you, audaciously flat. Your whole life seemed to be collapsing.

And when Betsy flounced to school the valentine weekend of February and confided to you that she had seen her first period, you were so jealous of her, and so mad at the traitor of a body you called your own.

Then there was the drama that Easter holiday.  Tobi came home for the Easter break, accompanied by her three year old son and the third fiancé she would bring home in six years. Considering that the first two marriages had been failures, Mummy wasn’t in the least bit pleased and made her displeasure known in very strong words. Mummy wouldn’t let them into the house at first, but when the neighbours started to stare from their windows, she acquiesced and opened the door.

It didn’t help any that fiancé number three was easily fifteen years older than Tobi, also had an ongoing love affair with booze, was equally unemployed.

For the next four days, there were periods of stony silence followed by drawn out verbal wars between the two women. The man of the house was careful to keep out of the way with his numerous town and business meetings. He had never been one to stay at home, but he went out even more that Easter period. Fiancé number three also disappeared often, would return in the evenings with the smell of menthol trying unsuccessfully to mask the odour of booze.

You wondered what on earth he was doing there. You wondered what in the heavens Tobi was doing there. But you loved having Yomi around. You had always thought that he was your nephew, but now that you knew he was your brother, you searched for similarities between the two of you. You both had Tobi’s lopsided smile, and the three of you had lazy left eyes that followed the right ones only reluctantly. And with a pang, you realised that you were the luckier of the two. All your life, you’d had the stable comforting presence of Mummy and all he’d ever had was Tobi and her crazy ways.

You didn’t like Tobi one bit, and your animosity grew when she didn’t show the affection or remorse you expected she would after the secret was no longer a secret to you. She simply carried on as usual, walking around like she owned the whole world.

When she mistakenly splashed water on you as you sat at the dinning table one morning, you exploded. All your anger, all your frustration, all your sadness mixed up within you and erupted into a violence you didn’t know you had in you. You sprang to your feet and attacked her with spit and nails. And you had the element of surprise, so all she could do was cower and roll herself into a ball as you raked her back and spat at her.

“Animal…” You shouted and kept on shouting. Even when your father’s strong arms pulled you back and your mummy ran in askance, her voice high and shrill and questioning, you couldn’t stop screaming, couldn’t stop lashing out.

Somehow they subdued you, looking at you all the while like a wire had gone loose upstairs, like you had gone crazy without warning.

Tobi gave you a wide berth after that, and you were keen, uncharacteristically keen for another show down with her. But the chance never came, not even when you called a family meeting and demanded why your real parentage had been kept a secret from you. All Mummy kept saying was that it had seemed the best idea at the time.

They wouldn’t tell who your biological father was. They kept saying they didn’t know, that Tobi had been with so many boys that there was never any chance of knowing who it had been. In their eyes, you saw the lies. They were lying, and they knew it, and now you knew it. But they wouldn’t give you what you wanted. No one had the guts to tell you.

“Is it Uncle Jide?” You asked. He was your older brother, the only boy of the family, and the one that was desperately trying to distance himself from the mess that was this family. He rarely came for visits and called only once in a while. It didn’t help that his wife was from another ethnic group and didn’t like how loud you people could get in the Yoruba language.

They quickly denied it, all of them.

In the sanctuary of your room, you turned it over and over in your mind. The facts seemed to fit. If an older brother gets his younger sister pregnant, it is a thing of irredeemable shame. That had to be the reason why the secret had been kept for so long, and was perhaps the reason he didn’t come around so often. Perhaps he was embarrassed by you, ultimately reminded of his transgressions each time he laid eyes on you.

A week after they arrived, Tobi left with her crew. School resumed activities, and life struggled to return to normal.

Your body finally flowered. You woke one morning and your green bed sheet was stained a garish shade of red. Your undies and nightdress were soaked through as well. You let out a whoop of joy, of exhilaration. Finally, finally. You told Betsy first, then your mummy later that day.

Life had finally become kind to you, you thought, because your breasts started to bud shortly afterwards. Finally, at age fourteen, after having almost given up hope, you were blossoming into a woman.

Tobi, questions about your paternity, and the whole family drama receded into the far corner of your mind. Your body preoccupied you. You bought a bra with savings without Mummy’s knowledge because she’d said several times that you were not yet ready for a bra.

But your classmates wore bras, and it was the ultimate sign of maturity for a girl’s bra strap to peek through the collar of her uniform once in a while. So you bought a bra, a pink one. You hid it in your school bag at home and wore it in the girls’ bathroom in school every morning. Then you took it off before you returned home every day.

And suddenly, the first year of secondary school was over. Your obsession with your body seemed to pay off, because you soon really needed bras. And with the bras came the boys. They seemed to materialise out of nowhere. They asked you out. They gave you their phone numbers which you hid from your mother.

Then something strange happened. Your father took his annual leave, and instead of travelling to the village like he usually did, he stayed back. He was home more than he was out, which was infinitely strange. You’d never been close, never sat in the same room together alone before. You couldn’t remember ever having been bounced on his knees, or your cries soothed by his ministrations. Your life had never really entwined with his, and now you had an explanation for it. He wasn’t really your father; he was just a reluctant grandfather trying to keep his distance.

And suddenly he was there, seemed to be, and all the time too. He didn’t say much at first, but he was there. He bought you chocolates and cookies, and barbecued Suya, which he instructed you not to show Mummy because of the strict diet you were supposed to be on.

And so, some sort of secret relationship began between you and your father. When Mummy was around, he was as gruff and distant as he had always been. But when it was just the two of you, he mellowed, became softer somewhat, told you stories of when he was a child growing up in the village.

You actually started to like him. He wasn’t too bad for a reluctant grandpa.

The Saturday he attacked you, it was totally unexpected. You were still in bed, your blanket pulled up to your chins, awake but not, treading that shadowy state between dreaming and wakefulness.

You felt hands on your breasts, big warm hands that somehow transmitted their heat even through the blanket. You jumped out of bed, out of your skin when you saw him.

Your father stank of bourbon and sweat. His eyes were red, unfocused; and he looked like he had gone off the deep end. Fear ran amuck in your body, your adrenalin level shooting so high so suddenly your vision clouded and you almost passed out.

Then you hit him. With all the indignation of youth, you hit him. You whacked him across the face one, two, three times. And then you ran out of the room, screaming for Mummy, only to realise that Mummy wasn’t in, wasn’t supposed to be in. She had gone for a vigil at church and had planned to stay a few hours afterwards to help clean up the sanctuary.

You fled outside, into the coldness of the morning, into refuge.

Mummy found you there two hours later, with the sun now out and shining brightly on your half naked body. But you were shivering. Despite the warmth of the sun, you were shivering.

And you couldn’t, wouldn’t talk. At least not at first. Mummy carried you inside, wrapped you in your blanket and forced a mug of tea into you. When you were sufficiently thawed, you started to cry. The sobs came from somewhere deep in your belly and exploded out of you in huge gulps. You felt like you were underwater, that you were going to drown, that you were going to die.

But you didn’t die. You finally began to describe the horror of the dawn.

Your mother sat with her head in between her knees, and she seemed to want to disappear inside of herself. With a fresh wave of panic, you realised that she was crying. She’d always seemed like a fortress of strength, and to your knowledge fortresses simply didn’t cry. But she cried. She wept silently, her body shaking and quivering like she was exorcising a demon from within.

When she finally got up to go check, your father was gone.

The two of you curled up in your bed, both crying, both grieving, both distraught. Then she shattered your world yet again. With seven short words, quietly spoken, she shattered your world again; this time irrevocably.

“He is your biological father, you know.”

 

 

 

 

Garlic Breath

Garlic breath

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I remember too clearly. The day he left was not the kind of day anyone should leave his family. The sun was directly overhead, and I remember our throats being parched beyond redemption. By the time Mama got us ice-cream, I’d already developed sores on my lips. We were hot, sweaty and miserable.

But not my Papa.

The joy that bubbled in his being was visible but not contagious, as if Mama already had the prophecy of what would happen, and as if we children concurred with her. Papa was oblivious to us, mopping his big bald head, and gnawing on the garlic clover he never went anywhere without.

There was no direct flight, so he was catching a first flight to Amsterdam. Eight tedious hours, he’d say, but the pleasure was all there in his eyes. He was the first in our family to travel abroad, and the fact that he wasn’t doing so legally didn’t bother him. A man had applied for the American DV lottery but had died before the results showed he was a winner. His brother shopped around for a look-alike, located my father, discussed business with him, and sealed the deal.

Four months later, my father, now bearing a dead man’s name, was going to the land of promise. The plan was for him to get established somehow, anyhow, and then send for Mama and us. We were initially delirious with joy but Mama’s obvious displeasure eventually rubbed off on us. It would be years later that I would begin to understand her reluctance.

Papa was a natural womaniser, a man blessed with too much good looks. A straight well-packed body, an oblong face that housed piercing dark eyes, an aristocratic nose, and full lips that bordered on pretty. The only thing that tainted his handsomeness was teeth that were slightly off colour, stained yellow by garlic juice. Being married and being a father to four children didn’t, couldn’t stop his wandering ways.

When the public address system announced that his flight was ready, he flashed us a thousand watt smile, waved goodbye and was off.

Little did I know that I’d never see him again.

*

He called twenty-two hours later. Mama came back from our neighbour’s house where she’d received the call, not exactly smiling but not frowning either.

“Your Pa called. He’s in America now. Says to say hello to you all.” That said, she took a seat and started to dish our dinner, food that already gone cold and congealed at the edges.

“Ma,” I began in my ten year old wisdom, a part of me eager to go live in America, the other not wanting to irk my mother. “When do you think Papa will send for us? Will it be very soon?”

She didn’t answer for a moment, but her spoon clanked against her plate. Then she stared me right in the eyes. “There are things you’re too young to understand. Perhaps your Pa will send for us, and perhaps he won’t.”

“But why?”

“Because he is who he is. And as I said, there are certain things you’re too young to understand.”

Her answer did not satisfy me, yet in that secret part of me where I know what things are true and what things are not, I knew it had fallen upon me to be the man of the house. After all, I was already ten years old, soon to be eleven. And I had three younger ones to look after. Not to talk of my mother, my Ma with the habitually pinched face and trembling hands.

*

I found a dried clove of garlic in his trousers. Without any hesitation, I pocketed it. It made all the sense in the world. If I had to take my father’s place, I had to be like him. I had to be him.

The first gnaw filled my mouth with heat and a horrible taste. I wondered how he could stand it, enjoy it even. But I persevered. I had to be Papa.

In their room, I found a picture of Papa and Mama. She looked very different, with a smile curving her lips. And there was none of that gauntness in her face. In fact, she looked radiant. Positively glowing, like there was nothing more to do in life than savour it. Based on the date on the right hand corner of the picture, I realised the picture had been taken a few months to their wedding. And I also understood something else.

Twelve years of being Papa’s wife had drained the life from my mother.

*

To my surprise, he called again a month after he left. Even though I didn’t speak to him, I gathered from Mama that he was finding America exciting. He told her he was already getting used to being called something other than his real name, that his new country had dizzying sights and sounds. He didn’t talk about getting a job.

I wanted to ask her if his call meant that we would soon be joining him, but didn’t.

“Ma, didn’t he ask to speak to us?” Ambrose, my eight year old brother asked. I gave him the evil eye. Didn’t he know one didn’t ask Mama that kind of question?

Mama shook her head. “He said to greet you all. Making calls from there is very expensive and he has to save money to send for us.”

“So when are we going?” Ambrose persisted.

“When all is good and ready.” And with that, she turned on her heels and went to her room. Even though she held her head high, I knew stupid Ambrose’s questions had rattled her, made her reconsider that Papa might not come back, as she so strongly believed.

I waited ten full minutes before I knocked on her door. When she didn’t bid me enter, I did anyway. She was curled up in the foetal position, her back to me.

“Ma, are you all right?”

A huge heave went through her body before she pushed herself up and turned to face me. “Yes, I am.” But her eyes were red-rimmed, as red as ripe tomato fruits. “It’s just that…just that…”

“Just that what, Mama?” I moved closer and put my arms around her and was startled when she stiffened. “I’m old enough, Mama. You can tell me what’s wrong?”

Closing her eyes, she sniffed the air. “What’s that smell? Didn’t I tell you not to ever chew garlic again? Didn’t I?”

I’d chewed a bit of a clover about two hours ago, before she came back home from work. After a month of practice, my tongue didn’t recoil in horror anymore even though I still detested the tangy taste.

“Don’t ever chew that noxious stuff in this house again, you hear me.” She was shaking me so hard I thought my teeth would fall out of my skull. Then she burst into tears.

I was confused and frightened, and slowly removed my arms from around her.

“I’m sorry.” She finally said. “It’s just that I don’t want you to be like him. Never.”

“But…but he’s my pa, and now that he’s gone, I have to take his place.”

She sighed. “No, you don’t have to take his place. I love you just as you are. Do you understand?”

Even though I didn’t, I nodded nevertheless.

“Even though you’re still too young, I’m going to tell you some things. Perhaps then, you’d stop trying to be like your father.”

I didn’t want to hear things about my father; at least not right then. I was still too frightened. I slid off the bed and stood.

“Sit.”

The command was soft but sharp and I quickly scrambled for a seat.

“Do you know what a womaniser is?”

I shook my head no, and was startled by Mama’s bark of laughter. “I thought not. A womaniser is a man who loves women too much. He just can’t do without them, and the more they are, the merrier.”

“Is Papa a womaniser?”

She nodded. “Yes. My mother didn’t want me to marry him. She saw right through him, but by God, you father could turn on the charm. Of course I went right ahead and married him. A year later, as I gave birth to you, I heard news that another woman had also just given him a son. You have a half-brother. Do you know what that means?”

I shook my head.

“It means you have another sibling that is different from Ambrose, Elvis, and Lilah. He’s about your age now.” For a minute she seemed to withdraw inside herself.  “If your father had stopped at that, it would have been all right. He’s not made another mistake of knocking someone else up, but he’s done just as well. Over the years, I’ve caught him with several women, some not much older than sixteen.”

“But…”

“But nothing. And now that he’s travelled, I’m sure he’s going to find himself some American woman and forget all about us.”

“But…”

“Shh. I’m tired. Could you close the door after you when you leave?”

Bewilderment surged through me. Was the conversation over? “Mama…”

“I’m sorry I told you all this, but you’ve got to stop acting like your father. I don’t like it.”

*

I never chewed garlic again. We never continued that conversation. And none of my younger siblings ever bothered Mama with questions about Papa again.

A year rolled by, with Papa calling about every month with promises of getting a job and sending for us. Then two years passed and then three years. The calls became spaced out, like every four months. And then they stopped.

Mama’s face lost its pinched look, and slowly she began to resemble the woman I’d seen in the picture.

Before I knew it, I was sixteen and virtually fatherless.

*

I came home from school to find Mama on the couch. There were no tears this time but there was a hardness in her face that could cut diamonds.

“An old friend called. She somehow heard the news.”

“What news, Mama?” My voice was now fully broken and still embarrassed me.

“The news we’ve been waiting for for five years.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand you.” I dropped my school satchel and sat opposite her. “What happened?”

“It’s you father.”

A knot of an emotion I couldn’t quite define gripped my midsection. “Is he dead?”

“No. He’s alive and doing very well. And by the way, he’s remarried to a white American, and has another child. Obviously, he got her by telling her he was never married. And as he is going by a new name…” She shrugged and stopped.

She was trying to be nonchallant but I knew, had an inkling of how it must feel. Your worst dream come true. I wanted to tell her it would be all right, but I also knew it was no time for platitudes.

Like that time five years ago, I slipped my arms around her waist, only that she didn’t stiffen now. Instead, she rested her head on my shoulder. In no time, I felt wetness. She was crying.

*

The next day, after she’d left for work, I came back from school. Rounding up Papa’s clothes did not take too long. Emptying the pockets, I found a grey mess that must some years ago have been garlic.

In the backyard, I built a huge bonfire, feeding it Papa’s clothes one at a time. When all had turned to ashes, I turned back and went into the house. Now, my father was officially dead.