September 7, 2014
“One of the keys to happiness, is bad memory“
– Rita Mae Brown
She watched the lights from the houses flicker on and off. Waiting in the back seat of the car, she wondered if it was safe to get out. The street suffocated in a thickening darkness, and like clockwork, the sound of a generator with dark smoke whizzing from an exposed pipe sounds in the dark night. Another generator sounds off, and then another, and house by house, the street, once dark, lit up like a hallway in one of those American films where the protagonist walks through a giant psychiatric ward and the overhead light comes on with each step through the hallway. She did not miss this about this place. The unreliable electricity, the noise pollution, the heavy expenses made to buy diesel. Her breath is short, lips pursed open and her hands clench her cellphone. It was now or never she thought, she could walk up to that gate or spend the rest of her holiday in a hotel somewhere.
“Madam you dey come down or not?” the driver asked, shuffling in his seat, turning around to look at her. His hair was a trail of white all the way to his chest, which she could see from the small holes in his shirt. Flagging a taxi at the airport had been a disaster, and she was sure he picked her out of pity. She had rolled her luggage out on the trolley and stuck her right hand in front of the exit, waving it in the air like an eager student in class, to the amusement of everyone around her. She had to pull herself together, remembering immediately that she was not in New York where people did this aggressively.
“ Yes, I’m getting out, please open the trunk.. umm boot so I can get my things” she replied, stuffing her phone and wallet into her purse, eyes searching the seat to make sure she wasn’t forgetting anything in the cab. This was Lagos, and not New York, people were not so honest. Most days, when nostalgia held her hand as she walked the streets in Manhattan, she felt the two cities were the same. The exception being that one had a subway and the other, a repressive congested or what Lagosians called “Bumper to Bumper traffic”. She remembered correcting a teacher in school telling him it was “bumper to fender” traffic. Of course bumpers did not meet bumpers if cars were all lined up from head to foot in a straight line. The aftermath of her youthful opposition was spending the rest of class in the corner, one finger touching the floor, one foot planted on the ground and the other in the air. A form of punishment Nigerian teachers and students called “pick pin”. She laughed at how much she had “pick pinned” in yoga studio classes on the Lower East side in Manhattan.
She drags three suitcases to the front of the gate, much to the amusement of the driver, who pulls away with a curious smile on his face. The house was familiar, it had once been her home. Now painted a different color, sporting a different front garden even, he had renovated. She raps on the gate twice, peering through the space between the door and the rest of the gate. Two new cars and a small gathering of people having dinner on the verandah. She hears a child squeal.
No one answers.
She raps the knocker continuously, and a small feeling of panic rises in her chest. What would he think seeing her, here, now? How would she explain to him that she had heard, and she was here to confirm? Would they be here too? the new wife and children he had? Would they be sleeping on her bed? Tossing small heads on pillows as she once did. Where were all her things? Their things? Had he thrown them out the way he disposed of them? She wiped the incoming tears in her eyes, standing alone in front of that gate. A small feeling of panic is rising in her chest now. She turns her head slightly behind, eyes searching the area to make sure no one was lurking in the darkness. This was Lagos, and though she had been absent for ten years, she still remembered the stories of armed robbers hiding in the dark, waiting for people to pull up in front of their gates and then following them into their houses from behind.
“Who be that?” a voice screamed. Startled, she cleared her throat.
“A security guard, thank God” she thought. “ Sir, my name is Nneoma, I am Mr. Okoye’s daughter.. I am visiting from America.”
“Mr Okoye no get daughter for America oh. Small madam no dey America ma, na lie you dey talk. Small madam dey for house.” he replied, opening the peep hole etched into the gate, his eyes meeting hers.
She winced at the name “small madam” remembering that it had also been her pet name when she was growing up in this house.
“I don’t have anywhere else to go. Mr. Okoye is my father, and I have to see him tonight.” she replied strengthening her voice. Maybe if she tried a forceful approach, he would go and get her father.
“That one nah your own problem madam. Abi you no call Oga before you reach this house? If you say na America wey you take come, you supposed call oga before you reach house.” he replied, closing the latch. She heard his footsteps distance themselves from the gate, he was walking away.
She picks up the knocker, and bangs it harder on the gate again, rapping it to the tune of the generator beside her.
“Ahn ahn!! what is it? Please leave this place before I call the police!” he replied, walking towards the gate again.
“Well if you don’t open the gate, I’ll lie down on the floor here till you call your oga.” She retorted, now placing her suitcase and duffel bag in a line, ready enough to form a makeshift mattress.
“Madam, you lie down there and I call the police” the security guard shouted, from his side of the gate. She could only see his eyes from the small peephole, and his feet as he sauntered on the side of the gate door like a caged animal walking back and forth in frustration. She remembered also, looking through this very hole when they did not have a security guard, occasionally running to the gate to open it for her father or mother when they came home.
“Kingsley, why are you shouting so loud at this time of the night?” she heard a voice say.
“Sah, there is one woman here saying she is your daughter from America. ”
“What? What do you mean?” the voice, which she recognized now was her father, was coming closer to the gate.
“She say she come here from America sah. I tell her small madam no dey America. Small Madam dey sleep for house.” Kingsley replied.
“Let me see.” Her father said. She heard his footsteps coming closer to the gate, rubber slippers slapping hard on the concrete. He still walked like he was stamping his position on the world, with hard and deep footsteps. As he approached, she wanted to run. What was she doing in Lagos after 10 years? Why did she quit her job, abandon a life well planned in his absence to come back here?
“What do you plan on achieving there?” her brother had asked, the night before she left, when she texted him from JFK.“I don’t know, I just need to tie up loose ends” she responded.
“Well, you are on your own.” he replied, closing out of the chat.
Loose ends, wherever they were now, she wanted to burn them all to ashes. What did loose ends really mean? Was she so American now that she aligned the narrative of her life to one of those dreadful indie movies she watched with her fiancé in the lower east side. Those films where the characters spent the entirety of the plot looking for closure. Why was she in Lagos looking for closure from a man who did not seem to think he had done anything wrong? Why was she the one, who had spent a $1500 ticket, flying across the world to meet him. When he had refused to bring himself for reparations. Why had he not done the same? Why was she the only one who felt the hole?And why, did this hole get bigger every year of her life? The most painful being her 27th where she had spent two hours like a stone, sitting at a dinner table in the midst of all the people who had taken a night off to spend with her. She did not know how to give love.
And because that hole got bigger, it swallowed everything that came in the form of happiness. Every relationship, every accomplishment, she had somehow lived through it, feeling like a fraud in the face of every gift, because he was not there. How did one become whole, if one of the pieces needed for completion was so far away. She did not know how to do without, like the rest of them. She did not want to spend the rest of her life waking up in the middle of the night, the breath of someone behind her, seeing the capabilities of love, but unable to, because of these “loose ends”.
The latch opened, and two dark eyes stared back at her. She heard him gasp.
“Hi Dad.” she said. Silence ensues, and she feels him pause before he releases one bolt on the gate. If she remembered correctly, there are two locks on this gate, so it was not opened yet. He was afraid.
Another voice, a shrill one at that, calls from behind him, “Dennis onye?” “Who is that? at this time of the night?” it asked. She felt the voice come closer, a woman, a woman who sounded young. Nneoma stares at the cluster of feet under the gate. She makes out her father’s, long and dark, and probably ashy she thought. The pair beside his, just now arrived, where dainty and brown, with toe nails painted a dark red. The second bolt opens, followed by the door to the gate.
The wall of protection was gone.
The woman standing in front of her, she had seen before, from years searching for him online. Typing his name in different formats on Facebook, seeing him on the news, posing with her at events. Her, with her bleached skin, almond eyes, long legs and arms.
Did she know who she was? Had he told them about her? about them? All of them? Apparently not, because she stared at her in surprise too, registering the genetical connection. The similarity in cheek bone structure, the same nose bridge, the brow furrow that was now visible on both faces, the indent in her chin which he also had. There is nothing but silence, with all parties taking stock of each other. The young woman wraps her arm around her father’s. She had asserted herself, this is mine.
“Dad.. I just..” Nneoma stuttered.
“I think it’s a bit late… we have a guest room downstairs.. you can stay there for the night” he whispered, stretching his hand out to collect her bag. The young woman blinked like a lizard, wide eyes still staring.
But Nneoma could not move.
The silence between them is disrupted. A yellow taxi with one broken tail light pulls up in front of the gate.
“Madam!! ahh you are here, you forgot your passport in this car oh! the driver shouted, stepping out of the car. “I had to drive through the traffic again to come here and drop it off.” Noticing the party standing on the other side of the gate, he lowers his voice.
“Nneoma, you can come in and stay the night her father said, his eyes searching hers again. She could feel him pleading. Not here, please not now, let us have peace, she does not know, Nneoma please not now. Loose ends. She was sure now, that it really mean’t nothing. The hands of guilt and shame crept out of the shadows, and she could feel them strangling him as he stood there, a man, who deserted his family on the other side of the world. For all the moments that she had dreamt this would be, they stood there, she stood there, unable to spew the convulsions that kept her in a state of darkness for 15 years of her life. She was unable to experience the catharsis of all the demons of hate, anger, questioning, sadness, longing and neglect in front of that gate with the small hole that she once peered through as a child.
“Well if you are not coming in, Dennis can call you tomorrow to have lunch, our children will soon be awake” the young woman said.
“Fuck you.” Nneoma replied.
“Fuck both of you” she said again, lifting her duffel bag from the floor. She turns around and walks towards the taxi, sweat trickles down her thighs, her back and palms.
“Madam, is this not you father’s house? I will wait for you in the car for twenty minutes” the driver whispered, wiping his face with a handkerchief.
“No, take me to the Hilton, I have a friend staying there.” She croaked.
“Nneoma wait!!! ” her father screamed, running towards the car now. She rushes inside and winds the window up, throwing both duffel bag and suitcases in before her. He bangs on the glass, mouthing “wait wait wait! where are you going?”
“Ahh oga!!! don’t break my glass abeg! you go pay oh!” the driver shouted back, starting the ignition.
“GO!! GO ! GO!” Nneoma yelled at him, banging on the headrest in front of her.
The driver steps on the accelerator, a loud screeching noise sounds off in the neighborhood. The young woman, the blinking lizard of a wife runs after her father “Dennis!! come back let her go, leave her! o bu agadi nwanyi! She is a big girl, she can make her own decisions.” Her father, in his long grey robe and rubber slippers, chases after the car down the street. The car speeds faster down the road, and she winds the window down now, a gust of wind and generator fumes mixing with his distant pleas. Nneoma tilts her head back, and sees him, a small figurine of a man, laying far off on the ground, his wife helping up. She pulls her phone out and texts her brother.
“Fuck Loose ends.”