I walked into the room, to the familiar smell of drugs and disinfectants. My poor friend lay recuperating on the bed beside the window. She opened her eyes lazily as I approached her. We hugged; and I joked about how her soppy eyes made her look drunk. She laughed, but it appeared she had done it more out of obligation, like a live audience in a sitcom ever staring at a hovering “Applause” sign and laughing their brains out whenever it blinked. But I was resilient and I knew I had to do everything I could to cheer her up. It wasn’t long before I got her bursting with laughter; she would slap my thigh, occasionally screaming “Are you serious?!” amidst the heated gossip.
And then I felt them; eyes burrowing into my skin and daring me to turn to the other side of the room. I did and I found myself face to face with a young stranger. His well-trimmed figure was neatly clad in denim jeans and a black button-up shirt. The first two buttons on his shirt were loose and my eyes wandered from his face to his hairy chest. Why won’t he say something? I thought. I looked away and for the rest of the conversation with my friend, I seemed particularly interested in her fraying cardigan, the teacup on the windowsill, the visitors trooping in and out of the room and my red toenails. “Oh yes! Irene have you met my brother – Omega?” She finally asked. I followed her pointing finger to the staring stranger. “Hi,” I quickly returned to our conversation, for it had just occurred to me that some horrible thing had happened to a friend of ours who recently got married. We had just graduated from high school and yet some our mates were being forced off into marriages. After the visit, I walked down the stairs with legs unsteady like jelly, but suddenly heavy with expectation. I descended slowly, pausing on each stair to play with my phone.
Just as quickly, I hastened the pace when I heard footsteps from the stairs above. I stifled the grin that spread across my face and, before stepping out the exit, the tall stranger was walking alongside me. I turned my attention to the store beside me and exchanged greetings with the shopkeeper. “How’s your Dad and how’s the hospital?” I assured him all was well. Dad was the Medical Director of the hospital Omega and I had just walked out of. I moved on, staring at the ground this time. There were so many puddles on the road, and avoiding them appeared to take extra maneuvering on my part. Omega broke the silence, “what’s your name? I know you’re Chidinma, but they call you with some other name.”
“Irene,” I said while staring into the distance. His cologne was a mangled scent of lime and rose water. Finally, I turned and looked at him; I let myself indulge in the hollow gaze that had remained fixed on me all afternoon.
And just below those eyes, the lips moved automatically. “Can I see you later on tonight?”
We strolled through the streets. It was dark and the cacophonous sounds of the many generators throughout the neighborhood, made it difficult for us to talk as we walked. I placed my hands of my chest, trying hard to prevent my thumping heart from leaping out of my ribcage. But he reached for my hand and held on tightly to my icy fingers.
When we got to the front of my house he placed his hands on my shoulders, those blazing eyes persisted, “why won’t you look me in the eye?” The question took me aback; I didn’t even know he had noticed. My throat went suddenly dry, but my loyal pride – still bruised from the remark – came to my rescue. I laughed and with a smirk I replied, “I don’t have trouble looking at you, seriously,” and I stared back into his eyes. I ignored the fleeting images of mushy teenage love dramas and romance novels darting through my mind; a part of me wanted to burst out laughing, but for some reason I was held captive and rendered motionless by those ever-piercing eyes. And very unexpectedly, his head descended. I swallowed hard, certain he would hear my pounding heart or feel my quivering lips. But the wet lips rested on my cheek, I did not recoil, instead I tilted my head in the direction of the giver.
“Can I see you again?”
“Yes!” the words escaped me before I had time to consider my strict Catholic parents and how lucky I was to not have been discovered up and about the neighborhood at the ungodly hour of 8:00pm.
“Omega and I are going out.” It took weeks and sleepless nights to utter our decision and my conclusion to the rest of my friends in school. As typical of them, they sonorously chanted – “Awhhh!!!!” “Cut that out!” I stared at them, but I didn’t blame them. They were all the products of too much Disney and Chick-flick movies. They all still believed and craved for a ‘happy ever after’. “Aren’t you happy?” one of them asked. “I don’t know yet; just seeing how it goes.” It was only a matter of time before they would crowd my desk in class and ask if I had lashed out the L-word yet.
As we couldn’t be seen in public – for fear of running into parents or family friends – and especially in broad daylight, we were resigned to the night time and its unremitting promise of darkness and concealment. We continued our walks in the dark, at times when my Dad was busy in the ER and my mum was caught up in singing Hallelujah chants in church. The lingering hugs kept me sniffing in lime and rose water. And then came a moment that was to redefine intimacy for me, as a teenager – the first kiss. Like all firsts, I had hoped for it to be monumental, but most of all, I thought there would be time; time for the entwining lips to exchange the wealth of emotions between lovers. Instead, it was a rushed tongue-jabbing in my garage. I heard the creak of the front gate and my epic moment was cut short. Omega hid behind the parked car.
“What are you doing here?” Dad inquired, his eyes glancing around the garage.
I came out from behind the vehicle, “Was just getting something I forgot in the car.” I went up with Dad and left Omega to his fate.
Our make-out sessions – for they persevered in spite of the looming threat of being discovered by my parents – were then moved to his house. Our last evening could have been like all the rest, if I hadn’t decided to go out fifteen minutes after my mum had gone to church. It would have been like the rest, if I hadn’t decided to take another route to his house and there I stumbled across my aunt who quizzed me on my destination.
“I want to buy something,” I had replied.
Maybe it was the anxiety; the fear that caused me to rub my sweaty palms on my jeans several times as I chatted with my aunt absentmindedly. I was so pressed for time that I doubled back and proceeded to the right route, leaving my aunt behind with a horde of unanswered questions.
I returned to the house at 10pm. Silly me. I had always imagined what would happen if I got caught on my romantic escapades. And all my mind could suggest, were sharp, stabbing sounds. A yelling that was forced to sink in regardless of the numerous walls and earplugs the brain invented. The kind of yelling that reverberated within, months after the ordeal was resolved. The kind that my mother’s eagle-like eyes would always evoke over time whenever I was seen loitering around with some member of the opposite sex.
I found my aunt sitting in front of the gate, her legs crossed and her mouth contorted in such a manner that it appeared as if she would spit at any time. “Where are you coming from?!”
I ignored her, pushed the gate open and walked in through the front door.
“Go into your room and kneel down with your hands up!” Mum barked from the living room.
Yes! I had expected those words; in fact the entire phrase. She had started lashing out those words at me since I was three years old and yet I felt demeaned as the sixteen-year old me, standing in front of the door, was being yelled at. Mum asked me to get on my knees and suspend my arms in the air. Then she stormed off in the direction of the kitchen. I could now audibly hear the sounds of roughly shoved cutlery. She returned brandishing a big, iron spoon. The monstrous utensil made contact with my head, back and what seemed like every inch of me, I wailed and pleaded for mercy but my punisher would not be pacified. She was hell-bent on delivering me from the sinister claws of the Devil. Apparently, Omega was a distraction and part of the devil’s grand scheme to prevent me from acing my SATs. At that point, I closed my eyes, the tears flowed automatically. I tried to run around the room for a bit, hopeful that I’d avoid Mum, but she ruthlessly grabbed my hair and pulled me to the ground. I then resigned to lie on the floor, letting myself bask in the shame that enveloped me as the spoon, now severely bent, descended on me.
I could hear my aunt in the background egging mum on – “I saw her sneaking out, but she didn’t see me”, she said in Igbo. “Yes, Mbanu, they will not spoil” she said in response to my mum’s rant about children and lost family values. She proceeded to the kitchen drawer, at this point I wasn’t sure what would be the next course of punishment – hot water, pepper in my eyes – similar stories from my friends at school clouded all signs of hope or relief from the stinging pain of the spoon. She returned with a pair of scissors, yanked my head and cut off the weaves that were sown to my hair. With that they left me, lying in a pile of cut hair and the mess that was my room. I gathered the hair and whatever dignity I had left; I knew what had to be done and it had to be done soon.
Days later, I waited in the church and then I held the gaze of those scorching eyes for one last time in church. Mum had convinced me to go for confession and she believed that I would know better than to see that “riff-raff” again after she had beaten me to a pulp. Omega looked me hard in the face. It was pretty obvious from my red eyes, the bruises on my arm, and the way my eyes paced around the room frantically like a thief, that our relationship would not last. His eyes were now filled with treachery, anger – perhaps at my mother – but a strange understanding that made it safe for me to go on.
“I can’t see you anymore; I can’t do this running-around thing and frankly, I don’t think you would want me to go through that again.”
And then the eyes softened, and I knew he understood. I knew we would still be friends. And then he spoke for the first time since I began -“I will always love you.”
The words settled in and for some strange reason my physical response was similar to the painful bowel movement I had had one Sunday morning when I accidently ate spoilt spaghetti.
Anything but this, I thought.
He continued to stare with eyes beseechingly hoping for the response that showed the generosity of the heart. The bad spaghetti was now lodged in my stomach. I looked down at the pew beside him and stomached the urge to regurgitate all over his white, polo shirt.
Let’s get this over with! “I love you too,” I smiled wearily. He leaned in for one last kiss and I hugged him instead. “I have to go home; my parents will be worried.”
As I walked home that evening, I avoided making eye-contact with the people I walked past. People I had practically spent sixteen years of my life with. They knew me and applauded me when I walked down the aisle in church on my first Holy Communion at age ten. They shook hands with my parents after Mass on Sundays and could simply walk from the church to the hospital and to our house, if they had some kind of medical emergency. Mum barely stepped outside the triangle –strategically formed by our house, the church and the hospital – and when she did it was only to shop or visit family friends in other parts.
I hated that we were cooped up in our tiny part of town; a place called ‘Nomansland.’ It was a close-knit community, perhaps too close-knit for a young seventeen-year-old to thrive and spread her wings. If only Ma could see the world out there, the joys of individualism, I thought. But I knew it was too late; there was no changing her now. There was no way to explain that I had friends who were fourteen and who were able to introduce their boyfriends to their parents. They ate out, studied together, and took walks without having to hide in dark streets and uncompleted buildings. I knew I had to end it; it was becoming too embarrassing to continue even for myself. I was the seventeen year old who still got beatings from her mother. But there was college, a bright new beacon of hope. I smiled acknowledging and ultimately resigning myself to the fact that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, for me here.
See more of Irene’s work on her blog here: http://chidinma.wordpress.com