My Intention is to Survive

This post is full of a lot of “my mother always says.” She can’t help being so wise. One of these sayings is “Start as you mean to go on.” I can’t be silent until I’m an important enough somebody to speak up. What’s the guarantee I’ll speak up then, if my silence is what helped me to “make it” in the first place? As Queen Zora Neale Hurston, said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

***

I sometimes have these moments where I’m convinced Issa Rae is going to jump out from behind a pillar and yell, “Cut!” It’s very possible I’m just narcissistic because I’m a Leo (if you believe in what the stars have to say), or because I’m an only child and a writer (if you don’t). Let’s consider the stats for a moment: irritating mid-twenties millennial, owns brightly-colored coats with ridiculous sleeves that are always too extra for any given weather or occasion,  would probably be at brunch more often if I lived somewhere that wasn’t Boston and if I could afford it. You see where I’m coming from? Insufferable.

Anyway, on this particular evening, I was on my usual walk through the covered car park on my way home, hysterically crying on the phone to my mum. Sadly, Issa didn’t jump out—she never does—and that’s because the scenario was more bleak than I have tried to make it out to be with the slightly cheesy Insecure-themed humor. “I’m exhausted,” I said “I don’t know what giving up looks like, but I’m ready to do it.” At this point my voice is bouncing off the walls and all around the car park, but in my experience people tend to give crying strangers a wide berth no matter how hard to ignore they might be. I can’t say I blame them. After all, Effie we all got pain.

As always, my mum is wise and calm in a way I’m not sure I will ever be. She asked, what does giving up look like? Moving home? I would absolutely find something to do. It’s not like people aren’t making incredible art in spite of the difficulties around structural support (I’m also not saying it’s easy to do so). I would be home, there’s nothing shameful in that. Except it implies that home would somehow be more tenable, that I would automatically be more at peace in a way that isn’t always possible in Boston.

As soon as the words are out of my mouth I realize how twisted it is for me to perceive “moving home” as a sign of failure, as if those who are striving, thriving, making their art and making their way in the world are somehow carving some lesser path than the one on which I find myself because I happen to be abroad while they are not. And as my mother reminded me, there would be nothing necessarily easier about being a young woman with lots of opinions and little fear to express them just because I would be in Accra and not Boston. My mother is brilliant, and  has always been unafraid to refuse orders she takes issue with. She spent most of her career at odds with “big men” who could not stand anyone who wouldn’t toe the line, let alone a woman. She has been punished for her brilliance and her refusal over and over again, and yet has always remained uncompromising and solidly in possession of herself.

In my personal relationships, I may not be as self-assured because I’m not very confident in my roles of daughter and friend, but at work and school, I truly am my mother’s daughter. I usually know what I’m talking about, and no one can tell me otherwise. But this day in the car park, just a few evenings ago, was not an isolated tantrum. It came out of weeks (or maybe even months, if I’m honest) of wallowing in desperation, of making room for misery to fester and expand. After completing grad school, I am still struggling with the feeling of being unmoored, and with the [false] belief that I am worthless without the right credentials and financial stability that would make me deserving of the luxury or privilege of peace of mind and time to research and write.

I have worked hard, I have “gone above and beyond” which usually means finding solutions to problems I didn’t create, I have spoken up and out for myself and other people, I have tried to be brilliant, to refuse when possible. I have also been feeling depleted, nursing old hurts, spending weekends depressed and teary after weekdays trying to be my shiniest and most impressive self at two different jobs and in social settings, exhausted from this relentless pursuit of financial stability that I am finding it increasingly difficult to socialize, attend dance classes, visit museums, volunteer, write, imagine; to do anything really that is spirit-sustaining for me.

I am slowly accepting lack, exhaustion, and precariousness as necessary for my journey in writing and life.

This runs deeper than the harmful “one has to suffer for one’s art” cliché. Through actions, words, and also the silences, I have encountered deliberate efforts to convince me and other Black women and queer people that we are unworthy of care, of living and working in places where we are not treated as though we are disposable.

But I am not convinced. The other day, I read this incredible essay by Alexis Pauline Gumbs titled “The Shape of my Impact,” and I have since posted quotes from it on my office wall opposite some other quotes of hers I put up after reading her book Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. She articulates all my fears and misgivings about giving myself and my brilliance over to institutions that do not care about my well-being or my life. In the essay, she writes,

“Let us be clear. Universities keep huge endowments, money on reserve, because they are supposed to keep money.  They will always tell you they cannot afford you. They will not spend their money to save the life of a Black feminist.  Poet Laureate though she may be.  Let us be clear. The universities that we mistakenly label as our bright quirky only refuge for Black brilliance have worked our geniuses to death, and have denied us help when we asked for it. The universities that employed June Jordan, Audre Lorde and so many others, watched cancer eat away at our geniuses, as they simultaneously ate away at black women’s labor. An institution knows how to preserve itself and it knows that Black feminists are a trouble more useful as dead invocation than as live troublemakers, raising concerns in faculty meetings. And those institutions continue to make money and garner prestige off of their once affiliated now dead faculty members.”

I have had this exact conversation with people working across industries. We are being depleted, but it is “for our own good.” We are reminded that somehow the places that cause us harm are also exactly where we need to force our “seat at the table” in order to do our work.

It is not hyperbole when I say to you that I have been in some of my worst health over the past few years in graduate school and immediately after. I am 26, and in the space of a few months in 2017 I had a surprise root canal, several fillings, and two eye infections (one in each eye), all ailments I had never ever struggled with until then. I’ve had panic attacks right before going out into the world with fake-slay intact. I have random knee and back pain that pop up on non-Zumba class days, and sometimes stay longer than must be normal. I may not have the medical credentials to say for sure that these are directly related to academic and professional stress as a grad student, but I am saying that being paid inadequately [sans benefits] for doing some really vital work including teaching [as an adjunct], means that you might not realize that tooth pain can turn into teeth falling out of your mouth, or rather that you might have to ignore those aches and pains in the hopes that they will disappear on their own.

I am not convinced that it’s normal for me to feel so undeserving of good things that even signing a lease for a lovely new apartment with a roommate who laughs and bakes and has the Bronx all over her sarcasm and sense of humor feels “too nice” for me to deserve. Every rent payment feels like an unnecessary splurge, because somehow I have come to believe that I don’t deserve the joy of looking forward to returning to my own living space, even when I can afford it.

In a recent conversation, I admitted to my mum that when I first started grad school, I used to feel so anxious about my finances that I would spend the barest minimum on groceries. She had given me money for my rent, and I felt so guilty that I had failed for not being able to pay on my own despite working multiple jobs, that I had failed for deciding to take out loans to attend graduate school because I didn’t get a scholarship (was this irresponsible of me?), so much so that it didn’t matter that I had always tried to be as self-sufficient as possible after leaving home because I felt she had already done more than enough for me, and because I knew she would give whether she had or not. So, snacks were non-essential. Fresh fruit and vegetables? Unnecessary. My fridge might as well have been an arctic wasteland until payday, and even then it was hardly any better.

Audre Lorde
“I love the word survival, it always sounds to me like a promise.  It makes me wonder sometimes though, how do I define the shape of my impact upon this earth?” reflection cut from an early draft of “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger” by Audre Lorde (Audre Lorde Papers, Spelman College Archive) (from “The Shape of My Impact” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs)

I am not romanticizing the “struggling artist” trope. It is not just some cute aesthetic. I’m trying to tell you that I watched my physical and mental health fall all over the place because I believed the lie that I didn’t deserve any better. I still feel so much shame in speaking about this publicly because of the constant reminders, subtle and explicit, that “making it” has more to do with wealth, class status, and returning home to attempt to climb Accra’s rickety social ladder than it does pursuing a path that I find joy and fulfillment in despite the (largely structural) obstacles, and trying to do work that might benefit other people no matter how small the effect may end up being. All her brains, and this is what she is using them for?- a direct quote, as if making art and cultivating concern for other people beyond oneself in thought and action is inferior to raking in money for doing an exploitative corporate job…

I am not silly or presumptuous for seeking health, peace of mind, space, and time to do things that bring me joy. I am not ungrateful for requiring appropriate credit and compensation for work that I do, most of which is usually at the service of other people. I am not a “just for the time being until we have squeezed out all we can from you.” I am nobody’s negation or blank-space-until-filled. I am not disposable. I am trying to remember that desperation is not my default, that my peace lives with me and not where I have the most elite co-sign.

One of my favorite sayings I’ve borrowed from my mother is “I didn’t come into this world to come and suffer.” One of her middle names is Obiageli, loosely translating from Igbo to mean “she came to enjoy life.” Usually, in my mouth it turns into something along the lines of “My mother didn’t give birth for me to sit down and suffer quietly.” She definitely didn’t bring me into this world to be beholden to people and institutions that would love to see me kill myself slowly for their benefit. I am formidable and curious and kind and  hilarious.

And I intend to survive.

(Image of Audre Lorde: Wikimedia Commons)

Cityscape

The city is winning. It follows me into the bathroom and rains murky water onto my head when I turn on the tap. This city has buried itself beneath my skin, a layer deeper than I can scrub, so I can never escape the smell. I’m on my third wash and my scalp has passed the point of burning protest and is now numb. My hair still smells like the man on the train who doesn’t care that I don’t want to chat. This morning’s coffee, cigarette smoke and saliva hiding behind spearmint.

My ex girlfriend called me up today and said come and have lunch with me. She works over at MGH. I call her nurse raging bitch.

The city won’t let me contribute to my own thoughts; my stream of consciousness has blank spaces for every time it has been interrupted by screeching on train tracks, dry cough and vomit splashing on concrete, heavy bass breaking through a car window at the traffic light. I sit up and inwards in an attempt to shrink my width so I don’t touch the woman reading student papers on my left and the drip of this man’s slushie on my right.

I made her pay my phone bill then I told her fuck off cuz I’m not interested. You believe that?

 Later, I’ll turn in my bed and see the same faces glaring at me for daring to take up too much space. I went to sleep compressed, with my legs tucked as closely together as possible, and woke up with the slushie spreading its unnatural blue on my sheets, and the student papers crumpled in a ball and stuffed in my mouth.

This city follows me to other places I’ve long since forgotten to call home. When I see the aunt who insists on calling me “Jehnet” for reasons I never really found funny, all I see is the body double she doesn’t know she has sitting on a bench outside a thrift store, smoking slim brown sticks and asking for change. The only reason I smiled and said, “No. I don’t mind” when she asked if she could smoke was because her hairnet looked familiar as did her chin that seamlessly folded into her neck.

The city is determined to follow me wherever I go. It scales the sides of buildings and hooks itself onto cracked open windows, before sliding down walls on the inside. It is mingling with the scent of tea brewing and traces of perfume, used books, cardboard and microwaved takeout. The city is heavy and only lifts itself off me long enough for me to say, “I’m good, howareyou?” It settles back down once I get the words out, pinning me to the chair and daring me to try again. I still can’t say, “Actually, I’m not ok. Do you have a minute?” because these people are here to teach and not to listen to the problems I think I have.

Yeah I’m good! I just stopped by to say hello!

be sure to collect all the exclamation points you have used freely and falsely and stuff them back in your fist for the next time

I think I’ve gotten a moment to myself, but this city pries the elevator doors open just before I start my descent. It is with me as I walk past rows of candy colored houses whose interiors are probably and tragically identical to mine. Shiny red pieces of plastic scratch the sides of my face as I wait to cross the street next to a group of cheerleaders dressed in uniforms as red and shiny as the pompoms they’re waving in my face.

I cannot end with a reminder that city dwellers are really just people pretending to be dark grey pinstriped jackets drifting from metal box to metal building and back again, waiting for someone to shake them out and wear them with pride, for someone to love them. This place just will not let me do it.

(Image: Taken by me, June 2016)

Encore

It’s been a long summer of hoarding anger and pouring it all out into my writing. At this point, I’ve realized that I’m not so much venting and trying to get rid of all my toxic feelings, as I am just using my words to be as hurtful as possible to the person that hurt me. I’ve been trying to make up for all the  lost sleep/writing time/peace of mind/joy over a person and situation that didn’t deserve any of this trouble. My hurt didn’t come from the regret of losing out, because I know for a fact that I’m not missing out on much. It came from being disrespected and left powerless to do anything about it. So, I wrote. This is going to be the last post of its kind, because in that person’s own words “There are more important things to worry about; it’s not that deep.” It was only a couple of months, right? Chill. 🙂

***

Does it get exhausting to be so careful? Did you ever take piano lessons? Probably not, and I don’t judge you for it, although you will find some way to braid this fact into the tapestry that is your rise to success, from neighborhoods we shall not name to the beds of women with accents sliding past immigration regulations. I only asked about the piano lessons because I would imagine that they taught you discipline, to keep steady hands at a meeting where you are being silenced over and over for your age, your stature, for bearing the wrong passport. I imagine that in those lessons you would hear how to measure time carefully, how to drop staccato points of argument, to play softly when the mood calls for it, to close the deal with a high-pitched tinkle of whiskey tumblers at the extreme right of the keyboard. What do you do to unwind? Do you ever relax? I assume that is the purpose I served. I was a novelty ornament sitting on a dusty shelf behind invoices yet to be accounted for. I would rise slowly out of the box at your request, sometimes sharp, other times slow and teasing– whatever you would like today.

But this is not about me. You are probably not surprised at my harsh judgment because you believe that feathers and imaginary middle class anxieties cushion my every fall. Any attempt at a sob story is only a pathetic play to match yours, and it doesn’t matter what toilets my mothers scrubbed and what broken shoes they had to wear so that I could hide diplomas I cannot read in a drawer I never open. As far as you’re concerned, a baby born with success clinging to the folds of her chubby arms turns into one of those “fancy girls” you see enjoying unusual blends of tea in the café down the street from your job.

Now you have access, in space, in wallet, in meticulously maintained but still crooked and unconvincing smile, and you can destroy your previous enemies from the inside out. The heart is the tastiest part; start there. But this is not about me. This is about you and how hard you’ve worked to live in a house very far away from the one of your childhood. You can shake your head at the little boys with dust covering their arms from wrist to shoulder, the ones aiming jagged stones at unripe mangoes. “That is no longer who I am.” That is no longer who you are unless, of course, it can add to your charming brand.

I ask if it gets exhausting, but I actually do not care. Even if there were traces of actual human sentiment left hiding in the hollows of your ears, I would not believe you if you tried to say, sincerely, that sometimes you need a respite from the cruel mime you have performed for many years. You are the engineer of what appears to be a perfect system, at least for now. No creaks in the joints, every joke carefully placed between product pitches, every private memory carefully curated to show off the cosmopolitan sheen glinting off your face.

I could also be wrong. You could be perfectly human and flawed in less sinister ways than I have dreamt up. You could be happy in the same uninteresting way that drives people to hold hands in public and block doorways with their embraces while strangers offer indulgent looks of approval. The tools that I have, you lack access to, words like weapons to gouge out all the parts you thought were hidden, an intelligence you cannot begin to fit into spreadsheets and three hour sessions dreaming up incomplete solutions to problems to which you contribute yourself. But of course, I could just be bitter and unable to let go. You could be totally happy and regular. It is obvious that I do not wish you to be, but mostly I do not care.

fuck you
Source: Tumblr

 

 

 

Inventory

Here’s another extract from the story-that-shall-never-be-finished 🙂 You can read the first part I shared here.

a spine- folded in half

The curve of my back was the long stretch of road to Labadi beach. We were sitting in the cramped backseat of a taxi, the rattling of the loose parts underneath it competed with and eventually won over the radio static interspersed with football commentary Dede Ayew with the cross, and it’s a gooooaaaaal! It was my birthday, so I didn’t care that the leather seat was sticking to my thighs with sweat in one place, and scratching my skin in another with place where the leather had cracked and where hairpins and groundnuts from some other passenger’s lunch were now embedded in the seat’s foam filling. The faded tarmac fought the sand encroaching onto its sides and the omnipresent waves of the Atlantic grew more restless and furious the more of land and “sea defense” rocks they swallowed. The road knew it would soon follow. You were the first person to ever buy me flowers, so it no longer mattered that hours before, I was prepared to give up on you and spend the rest of my day punching disappointment into the cushions of grandma’s sofa because you arrived at the gate hours after you said you would. My low expectations for you had been exposed, but the embarrassment I was hiding in my throat had almost vanished.

It’s not my fault you’re not reliable

It’s not my fault I’m late. The car–

It’s because I’m not your priority.

Let me finish. The car broke down and I had to take a taxi.

It’s not my fault I have a hard time trusting you.

It’s not my fault you always want me to prove something to you.

But perhaps I am moving too fast down the list of minor slights and sly insults. We had not yet learnt to drag each other on this journey after which I could no longer see myself in mirrors, and you wondered what made you try to understand something as unconceivable as a reflection in flux in the first place. That day it smelled exactly like July should, drizzle clinging to leaves and the next rainstorm never far off, but you couldn’t tell from looking at the tourists roasting themselves, first on side, then on the other, by the pool. We picked our way through discarded slippers and empty bottles of sun cream pressed down in the middle towards the back of the hotel grounds. What looked like just another chalet actually housed an eclectic and slightly confusing array of things; a winding hallway with orange and white tiles and walls covered almost entirely with abstract art that looks like everyday Accra in haphazard brushstrokes, stick men fighting over another stick body lying on the ground, a red trotro in the background. At the end of the hallway and past the Thai restaurant, a porch swing strung between two bronze pillars, its seat full of gold and fuchsia pillows with a few bald spots where there used to be beads. Then, an indoor replica of a lovers’ lane overgrown with vines in such perfectly ordered disarray that they must have been plastic, leading to an ice cream parlor with attendants in starched pale green uniforms, an unfortunate color choice considering the large tub of pistachio ice cream right in the middle of the glass display case.

Maybe it was the air conditioning whistling over our heads, or the series of tingles one brain freeze at a time, or the fact that the tall metal table and chairs were a little awkward to use so that your foot kept meeting my ankle in the same spot every time we shifted, trying to get more comfortable. It could also be the familiarity of this place I had begged my mother to take me whenever I did well on a big test in primary school that relaxed the tension that was yet to build in my back. I did not yet know that I would hold moments like this in the side of my mouth like toffees I didn’t want to melt, running my tongue over them to the point where it was raw and aching, trying to recall the taste of lime sorbet and teenage infatuation not as yet tainted with insecurity and the pressure of long distances and too much time spent apart.

Sublimation

Even the buckling of the plastic chair on which she sat seemed perfectly orchestrated.

the sublime is the feeling you get when you are so close to someone else’s danger, yet far enough that you can feel the base of your stomach collapsing inwards while your feet remain planted where you stand.

The sublime did not live on the white board of an over-heated classroom suspended above the heads of bored graduate students. On this night, it rested on the triangular base of the leg of this chair, which skidded slightly every time she rocked backwards to get a better look at him, tilting dangerously to the right, whole being on tilt and more off center than it had been when they first sat down.

sublime descriptions of nature are usually replete with detailed, deeply sentimental images of one’s environment. “one” is probably a woman.

In this part of town, family houses with rusty roofing sheets sagging at the edges were squeezed between all night food stands and boutiques with imitation designer bags jumbled together in their window displays. Here, arms were draped across laps in a way that would be hard to explain on the phone later– other arm draped across top of head– casual stance which seemed to say: “I could do this again tomorrow night if you’ll let me.”

sublimation is the direct vaporization of a solid by heating without passing through the liquid state. it is also the transformation of an expression of a desire or feeling from its unacceptable form to one that is considered more socially or culturally acceptable.

She doused knowing smiles in large gulps of her drink and looked away and over the top of the next too small table wedged uncomfortably between two equally awkward people. Maybe it’s the first time meeting for you too? She crushed new feelings between the arms folded across her stomach, pressing inwards until they were swallowed and bubbled upwards and out of her mouth as laughter that could have been a lot more well-behaved.

what made you decide to come here?

well, I really wanted to see the fireworks, but I think I may stay a little longer–

 

 

Serving Suggestions (cont’d)

“Listen, Awo, I can explain.”

She looked up through the fog of her anger and pride, and realized the once rugged lines of her husband’s face had blurred since she had stopped seeing him, so focused was she on enhancing herself.

“Listen to what, Elorm? I can’t believe you. Did you forget? Have we not been planning this anniversary celebration for the past two weeks?”

“I said I could explain.”  That familiar knife-like sharpness had found its way into his voice the way it did every time Awo tried to confront him with her temper and her incessant demands.

“Go ahead and explain then, I’d love to hear how I’m over-reacting and how there is a perfectly logical reason for why my feelings are not valid. Go on! I know what this is about. It’s not my fault I don’t make you feel like a ‘real man,’ that your male ego can’t take you being ‘Mr. Awo’-”

“I’m fed up of having these arguments with you. It’s like if I don’t act exactly the way you want, with everything according to your specifications, then you have one of these tantrums. And then come your excuses, and your promises- and I know we’re supposed to lean on each other but I’m tired Awo, and-“

His eyes narrowed. “Wait, what did you just say? Mr Awo? Do you really think this is what it’s about? If anyone here has an ego it’s you, my dear wife. You manipulate me with your tears, and you think you can back-pedal and blame our problems on me being a typical African man, on me being unavailable, too logical, on all manner of things! After the miscarriage, you said you didn’t want to try again because you couldn’t afford to give up on your career, and I supported you. I have always been your biggest fan. I would do anything for you, but it never seems like enough. Enough! It’s time you took responsibility for our problems and not just our triumphs.”

“You know what?” he added bitterly. “Don’t bother, I’m fed up of your hard-fragi, Jekyll and Hyde act. Keep your emotions and your selfishness too.” He turned towards the door.

She was so stunned by this monologue that all she could do was watch his retreating back, already missing the broad shoulders that had held her up like that brick wall to the cross, after long days in the kitchens, at times when it had seemed like her own spine had been turned into jelly. His harsh words hung in the space right above her head, like smoke refusing to disperse after a pot had been left too long on the fire.

“Elorm wait! Wait, please I didn’t mean to…”

He turned back with a look that belonged to a total stranger. He reached into his pocket and retrieved an envelope which he slid across the countertop. “I wish you had just listened. This time I really did have an explanation.”

He was gone. Awo continued to sit just like her mother had done years before. Her meal, ice-cold and long-forgotten, also sat before her, silently taunting her. Who said she was above mediocrity? She had failed. Once open, the envelope revealed just how her pride and her desire to control had helped to unravel her marriage. Two tickets for a luxury getaway to Thailand. She had been dying to visit and dropped hints at every opportunity. She got up and picked up her car keys and her white chef’s jacket. She attached the gold pin to her chest and smoothed it down. It declared in embossed capital letters, “Awo Ayi, Head Chef”. A long shift at the hotel awaited her.

 

Serving Suggestions

For the 4 and a half people who have been waiting for me to post new work, I apologize. I’ve actually been writing  but haven’t been too happy with the results which explains my disappearance for the past month. But I’m back 🙂 and I hope you enjoy! 

She sat staring at the plate of food in front of her. Only half an hour ago steam had risen from it with its characteristic slowness, seductively daring the diner to resist. Now, it was no more than a congealed mass of over-cooked tomato paste sitting next to sticky rice. She almost let out a laugh when she thought about how much she had in common with this rejected meal, a mere substitute, left to simmer too long only to grow cold waiting to be consumed, better yet, devoured by a certain someone’s hunger. Awo had this curious habit of thinking of life in terms of food metaphors, creating analogies that were sometimes humorous but mostly inappropriate for the gravity of the current situation. Perhaps it was one of the many symptoms of her job as the head chef of one of the most prestigious hotels in Accra. With every day she spent controlling her staff with her infamous bellow; “Is that clear?” and sending out sumptuous meals with finesse, she felt as though she was laughing in the faces of all those who had slapped their knees and doubled over with laughter, mocking her career choices.

“You? A woman as a head chef? How? It’s not possible, we all know men make the best chefs!”

“But I thought a woman’s place was in the kitchen? How ironic, that cooking is the domain of the lady of the house until it becomes a high-paying job with all the perks, only then does it become a legitimate activity and not a wifely duty…”

“My friend please spare us your feminist nonsense! Your parents sent you abroad to go and read aaah you came back to cook for the same big men who run the system you want to insult…”

Awo looked down at her dismal lunch and wondered what an award-winning chef was doing eating like a college student. The exquisite steak she had prepared some hours earlier, lovingly rubbing the meat with spices and tending to it so it would emerge from the oven just the way he liked it (“No blood oozing out like your posh hotel guests please I like my meat well cooked!”) was stewing in the bin, still releasing it’s aroma into the air. Ever since she had watched her perfect mother lay out impeccable meals night after night, hands folded primly in her starched lap waiting for her father, meals at which he rarely deigned to show his face, she vowed to herself never to let a man dictate her actions in that way. Never to descend into the murky abyss of depression covered up by family’s hushed reassurances,

“Sister Monica is just tired, not crazy! Imagine looking after all these children and a husband, in that big house! Hmm in fact she is trying…”

Never to wait for anything. Never to curb the force of the tidal wave that was her ambition, breaking gently instead at the feet of her lord and master, washing them carefully and dutifully. Never to put her goals on the back-burner in order to complement another and allow him to bask in the glory and praise of those around while she sank deeper and deeper into oblivion. Always a palette-teaser and never the main meal.

She smiled to herself; surely this was a problem. Thinking of food at time like this, when the draughts of separation and misunderstanding were ripping through her carefully constructed marital home. She did not even afford herself the leeway of wondering what she had done to deserve this, or how she had arrived at this point. That was for weak people who did not want to claim their share in their own unhappiness, choosing instead to point fingers at “circumstance”. Awo, the booklong, had achieved the enviable feat of embodying the modern Ghanaian woman trifecta, educated and beautiful with an unmatched recipe for jollof rice. She had never given anyone the chance to raise her virtues above their underserving head as a trophy, an offering to failed manhood and family expectations. She had been notorious among the male population of her secondary school for being rude and unwilling to accept their romantic advances, a fact which branded her automatically as frigid and strange.

“See am oh! Notin give am saf!”

She wore her supposed strangeness like a badge of honor, debating with teachers while others kept silent and buried herself in books; encyclopedias, outdated chemistry textbooks, cookbooks, which probably explains why no one was surprised when she announced that she was abandoning her chemical engineering degree to take a job as a chef in a French restaurant. Nor were they surprised when she rose through the ranks of the best restaurants in town, eventually assuming the head chef position at the Regal Palm Hotel, making her the youngest and only female to do so. No one expected anything less from her, and the rumors swirling about her painting her as a snobbish shrew settled after her marriage to a certain executive at one of Accra’s leading advertising firms.

“Hmm maybe she was expecting ooh…no wonder they did it so quickly!”

“Yes ooh and I heard no traditional marriage too! Not even a single bottle of Schnapps!”

Awo remembered this same day ten years ago, or maybe it had been ten lifetimes, and how little she had cared about all the wisps of gossip floating about town, only just eluding her ears. They had been ecstatic. Their modest ceremony had been conducted beneath a stoic cross held up by aged brick, the same eternal symbol that had borne witness to both their baptisms. The reception was a never-ending blur of envelopes of money and suffocating hugs in the ample bosoms of old aunts. They were so eager for it to come to an end so they could be alone. Their craving for one another set the tone for their marriage, and their first few years were spent in this suspended state of wanting but never having their fill. One could argue that this was not the healthiest foundation for a long-lasting union; after all, a candle burns brightly for a brief moment before melting down to an unrecognizable version of its former self.

And today, she sat in her spotless kitchen, an unfortunate replica of the mother she resented and whose fate she had tried desperately to avoid. She believed that she was nothing like that wan shadow of a woman who smiled emptily at her emotionally abusive husband, receiving his subliminal blows while keeping his house pristine. She did not belong to that army of women kitted out with vapid facial expressions and a baby on the hip who she had always looked upon with disgust. As far as she was concerned, they were to blame for all their marital woes as they lacked the guts to leave, settling instead for a life of bakery and mediocrity. She knew she deserved so much better than that. How dare this man reduce her to the ranks of such weaklings? And yet…true love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs, it endures every circumstance. And yet…wasn’t humility one of the fruits of the spirit? Several Bible verses flashed through her mind, but it had been years since she left Sunday school and they were no longer as clear as they had once been. And yet…she was alone on her wedding anniversary, with a home-cooked meal which would soon begin to rot in the garbage just like her disintegrating self-esteem.

Then, the unmistakable clink” of keys on the kitchen counter, and a familiar shadow darkened her outlook.

(to be continued)

-Special acknowledgement goes to my dear friend Aba Quagrainie for the pidgin consultation. 🙂 

Cancers that attach to beautiful flowers

Her lithe beauty was both incongruous but yet strangely at home as she picked her way through the crowded marketplace, expertly and delicately sidestepping rotten pieces of fruit squashed into the dirt. The well-to-do housewives visiting the market left their air-conditioned cocoons for brief periods of time in search of items they couldn’t find on supermarket shelves lined with imported goods. Their wealth seemed to ooze crudely from their overly moisturized pores as they lifted their spotless kaftans quickly and roughly out of the reach of the grasping hands of children begging for coins and the eager grips of market-women desperate to make a sale. She, on the other hand, elegantly extricated herself and flashed her flawless smile in apology. It was almost as if she knew that others couldn’t resist her, even though regrettably there wasn’t enough of her charm to go around. She paused every so often as she wound her way through the market, taking a deep whiff of Asana’s spices and agreeing with Aunty Vida on how ripe and juicy her tomatoes were this season.

She lugged her basket bursting with produce back to the waiting 4×4, and unless you were watching excruciatingly close, you would probably have missed the slightly uneven edge to her gait, and the exhausted puff of air she expelled as she heaved her wares finally into the boot of her car. She sat back against the cool leather and inhaled the new car smell that still clung to the car’s interior. She had come home from her final (and probably most stressful) semester at Stanford to find the sleek Mercedes resting in the driveway like a blinding white birthday cake awaiting the cutting. It was more so a lure, a bribe to stay at home and continue pursuing her medical career rather than returning to the States which she had grown to call home over the past couple of years. She declined to drive it at first, what would she look like, a “small girl” cruising the streets in a “big man’s” car?

She stared tiredly at her reflection in her rearview mirror. How could people fail to notice that she was slowly fading; her rich cocoa skin had this persistent grey tinge that couldn’t be banished with the oiliest of shea butter creams. Her parents were of course aware of her “unfortunate” illness, which is how they chose to conceal her terminal condition whenever a relative asked after her. They explained away her frequent hospital stays as weekend getaways to their home in Aburi, and excused her promptly from her dinner parties the minute they saw the vague glassy look invade her eyes and a slight gag following every bite of food.The irony of her situation left a bitter taste lingering in her mouth. Her dream to be an oncologist wavered in front of her like the air vibrating immediately above burning tarmac on another humid afternoon in Accra. “Cancer patients? Isn’t that going to be too depressing?” How could she explain to people that studying to be an oncologist would be like having the ultimate playbook to defeat an opposing team with one crucial page missing? She had all the flashcards and cheat sheets (one page only!) to pass any exam. Yet, the tumors raging along her spine did not answer favorably to the doctor’s neatly laid out strategies to conquer her illness. Medicine, the noblest profession according to her parents, had been foiled for the final time. Her dazzling smile was feeble now as she looked down at the tissue soaked with her coughed-up blood. She pushed the car into gear and maneuvered onto the busy street. Hers was a beautiful decay, perfect teeth and all.

The Interview

Trying some prose that is less flowery for once! Enjoy! 🙂

“Listen Quaye, it’s about time you got off that high horse of yours! How dare you refuse your editor’s orders?

“Sir, with all due respect, I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to publicize such an unethical public figure. I mean what about the million dollar scandal…”

Quaye straightened his frayed tie and swallowed rather obviously as he did whenever he felt that he had crossed a line. This nervous habit had been just one item on the laundry list of reasons Adwoa rattled off before packing all her things into the back of a rickety taxi bound for her parent’s house. “And another thing, a journalist? Where are you going in life? I’m sorry Quaye, I just don’t see myself with someone who lacks…ambition.  ” Six months later he received an invitation to the “joyful union” of Adwoa and the son of the newly inducted commissioner of the Bank of Ghana.

“Quaye I’ve heard enough! Ethics this and social justice that! As if you didn’t get this job because your uncle is a big man at GBC. Here’s your assignment, take it or leave it. If you still feel to big for this place, then don’t bother coming back.”

With a barely audible sigh and defeated sag to his shoulders, Quaye walked out of the offices of The Daily Drum, with his editor’s indignant muttering following in his wake.  He bought himself his usual lunch of roast plantain and groundnuts and stood squinting at the traffic that clogged High Street every afternoon without fail.  He knew he would eventually have to climb into his tired Opel and make his way to Movenpick to interview the minister. Maybe it was the overripe plantain that had brought on this strong wave of nausea, or maybe it was the fact that he was heading to a world of overstuffed sofas and overstuffed politicians.

An eager communications student, he vowed never to “sell out”. Writing invigorated him. He loved sharing his story and helping others tell theirs, but he also had a great desire for something more. There had to be more to life than the modest government bungalow that was the extent of his universe. There were certainly many more exciting things than the neat patch of dust that his mother swept carefully every morning, or the larger patch of dust on which he lost many a game of soccer. He was set on a career as an investigative journalist. His passionate young self would have scoffed at him in the present day, toeing his boss’s line in order to keep his mundane job, churning out story after story about the opening of municipal wells in some far-flung district and interviews with one slimy government official after another.

He pulled into the pristine grounds of Movenpick Hotel, the droop of his car bumper matching that in his shoulders. The doormen in their starched linen uniforms looked suspiciously at his threadbare shirt and too-short trousers sweeping at his ankles. Their suspicion quickly turned into disdain and they ignored his shaky “Good afternoon” as he walked past. He bore not one telltale sign of wealth, no driver sitting stiffly in a European car, no girlfriend with voluminous Peruvian weave giggling on his arm, no crisp banknote stuffed in his fist to be slipped discreetly to all the workers who were potential witnesses to an openly secretive affair with a young Legon undergrad.

(To be continued…)

This is Bliss

They stared at each other desperately across the room with its low ceiling, ant tracks concealed as best as they could be with Vim, steel wool and a lick of cream paint. Maybe the ache they felt pulsing in the depths of the abdomen was their profound longing for one another, or maybe it was the pangs of long drawn-out hunger after a whole morning of stiff formalities exchanged between families that at the very least were pretending to be cordial to each other. The number of bottles of Schnapps and rolls of gaudy fabric had no effect whatsoever on the feelings that had flourished and exploded between them after years and years of Skype calls, and text messages with the odd renditions of human faces that passed for emoticons, and siting on that bench after school far past closing time.

Like young couples are prone to do, they felt that they had revolutionized what it meant to be in love. This was the real deal, no Hollywood blockbuster featuring what’s-her-face and Ryan Gosling, nor stilted Nigerian movie, nor exaggerated romance novel could capture the depth of their devotion to each other. Theirs was that perfect and slightly annoying type of relationship that did not stomach grudges for long, to the dismay of onlookers eagerly awaiting its downfall. Their souls sang in the same dialect, and…

They were yanked out of this romantic philosophizing by the yells of joy being forced out of well-wishers with the promise of a hefty takeaway pack at the end of the ceremony, enough food for tonight’s dinner. All thoughts of souls and hearts fitting together like the last two puzzle pieces you thought you had lost at the bottom of the box vanished in a cheeky puff of air, replaced by the reality of the heat weighing heavy under the canopies outside and the itchy material of the imported lace aggravating the skin. Anonymous aunties with large expanses of bosoms swathed in kente swayed and danced as they sang the praises of the couple and wished health and many children on them.

-This lady did not just pray for ten children and ten more. What do I look like???  

-Haha but we agreed remember? 😉

Her favorite aunties shot deadly looks to the elder who attempted to pour libation in honour of the ancestors in a very Christian house, and with that the rituals came to a rather anti-climactic end. The pastor recited a limp prayer as damp as the collar that lay against his neck as though seeking shade from his protruding jaw, and all the guests rose with a unified sigh of relief as they headed straight for the table laden with food.