How the story ends

There were questions stuck in the gaps between your teeth, they were irritating your now inflamed gums and were threatening to mar that deceptive smile, fluorescent beams flashing- I’ve been totally alright, thanks for asking! There were moments you had preserved cushioned by velvet, placed in the pocket inside your jacket, patted down to ensure they were still there every so often, polished and turned around between your fingers from time to time. And now you passed them back and forth between yourselves, being so careful as not to drop them so they did not crack like

The  foundation you caked on your skin because fault lines always begin on the forehead and around the mouth

The foundation you not so much built but assembled and held together with tight hugs and

That smile interrupts the smooth brown of the face in front of you so often it feels like yesterday was three years ago and your favorite restaurant had not yet turned into a kitchen appliance store and your hands did not do unnatural things like reach into each other’s chests and squeeze the heart so that the rhythm changed for good.

There is a reason why you are not able to sit through reunion specials of shows you have never watched, listen to music with strings creaking with longing for Lord knows what, maybe begging for someone who knows how to tune a string instrument so that it does not creak?

There is also an explanation for you picking apart bits of discarded writing, choosing a bone from here and a bit of flesh from there, hoping no one will realize the he you address is actually the he they all know.

You no longer stare at the sky at 4pm on a sunny Saturday, because you would like to believe that you have long outgrown that part of yourself that yearns for things like a certain time of day frozen in 1996 when your mother looked exactly like you do now and you had not yet learnt to deny yourself things that brought you joy.

And you are now trying to romanticize an interaction that if anything was a clumsy attempt to reassemble an arrangement whose configuration has been distorted beyond redemption. You have been trying to write about this for days hoping that the questions you should have asked will materialize somewhere between inch 1 and 1.5 of the margin. Questions like, “What happened?’

Oh it was no big deal, we met up ate and laughed, just like old times…

 

In Transit

Her hips were too wide for the bus seat, and the weight of embarrassment that hovered above her head pressed downwards, its weight growing unbearable as she shifted in the inadequate space. She mumbled apologies each time her fleshy thigh rubbed against that of the sinewy one of the slim girl next to her, and flinched every time the arm rest dug into her side. Her humiliation expanded to fill the air around her, as she sensed her neighbor’s looks of disgust flashing in her direction. The bus eventually paused somewhere between Maryland and Philadelphia, and she watched as two young women climbed onboard with bright wax print tied around their heads in a style she had never seen before. Their oversized beaded bracelets rattled loudly, competing with the peals of their self-conscious laughter. She noticed their eyes slide past hers immediately after they made eye contact, almost as though they were guilty of an offense they were convinced they had left behind in a flurry of college acceptances and green cards. She was a reminder of their hidden pasts and unwanted futures; the slow-moving, wide-hipped mothers they had abandoned to tend the weak fires of rusty coal pots. She was a symbol of their most profound fears, the kind of unsophisticated African womanhood they were attempting to fight off every time they preached the danger of stereotypes in their classes, the sing-song tones they erased from their clipped, flat English, the kinks they stretched and elongated or twisted out and pressed in an effort to show that glamour also had an African name, and it was Ngozi, not Blessing. For them she represented a counter-ideal, a monument which may have been a foundation for their very existence but one which they only now grudgingly claimed. She was the smell of onions and wood smoke lingering in a faded wrapper, a stench they chased away every day with shower gels and body butters infused with a hint of shea. Her stare was an accusation, a death sentence, a piercing ululation in the middle of the night. Their glossy coating of pride and #carefreeblackgirl concealed a more sinister layer of self-hatred, one that had also fallen victim to the same Western gaze it tried (and failed) to reject.

Not all African women live in villages and carry pots of water on their head from riverside to hut all day long.

 Not all African women are mutilated and oppressed, not all of them are somebody’s third wife.

 But my mother did, and she was, and still is.

 What is this woman staring at? Do we owe her money? Mtchew. She’s one of those bush women that can’t mind her business. Probably with no papers. Don’t mind her. We don’t owe her anything at all.

1 Corinthians: 13

She had spent this morning, as she had done every morning for the past two months, flicking through photos on her cracked phone screen to the point where she was sure that tiny flecks of glass would permanently embed themselves in her thumb. From the moment she heard the final click that fell into the silence at the other end of a phone call, she had embarked on an impossible mission. She was searching for that inexplicable love that gives freely and willingly of itself and does not scratch a tally of every wrongdoing into the lover’s fleshy back. She was looking for the profound feeling of safety and belonging that she had only felt briefly in her mother’s embrace before it disappeared into a cloud of ashes– skin, nails, bone and one burnt will and testament.

There’s nothing like a mother’s love. You’ll never find a love like that. Everyone loved her. I love how you’re coping with this. Do you love him because the sound of his voice echoes words of comfort trapped on the wrong side of the afterlife? Or do you love him because ‘love’ is a more socially acceptable way to describe an unhealthy attachment?

Was it silly to want that 1990s love? A love that came dressed in a tight black dress with nearly invisible straps, in jeans with holes at the knees and leather jackets, perched lightly on the back of a motorbike speeding onwards into the night. A Friday night, smoky club and kebabs from the street burning your tongue love, which would metamorphose into love pre-destined and sprinkled with holy water. She was desperate to learn what made her grandparents giggle, heads bent and foreheads nearly touching on a black and white dance floor circa 1958, when Accra was Accra and the air was not yet burdened with smog and dissatisfaction, heavy only with anticipation and guitar strains from the highlife hit of the day.

Maybe someone could show her a Lauryn Hill crooning type of love, that incense and I put this on specially for you, love. Where could she find this thing that caused those who lacked it to rage and riot and wither and fade away, and those who had it to rage and riot and wither and fade away? She was looking for a slam poetry love that swung its long dreadlocks, eyes closed, mouth twisted mid-verse, one hand on heart and other hand reaching up into ecstasy and beyond. She swiped and swiped through digital love filtered through fake sepia lenses, hoping to find an old movie love where everyone tried too hard to be proper but somehow ended up even more vulgar than they had intended – Not in front of the children!

In search of a forever love that held true to its word and did not cower at the prospect of no one else but me, she read and re-read old messages trying to decode the signals she had missed. She had missed that forever love somehow, choosing instead a right now kind of love that was only waiting for something much less complicated, a little bit more convenient. She thought she had grabbed a handful of the hem of that heavy African lace love obviously wore– on her way to yet another engagement, no doubt– but all she had was polyester masquerading as silk love, an only for a few nights love, only for those curves, love. She was given you’re blowing this way out of proportion love, and you feel feelings too much kind of love, I promise this is good for you, I’m only trying to help you see beyond yourself, love. She thought all she had to offer was I’m too insecure and I need you, love; I don’t make sense with or without you love. She was missing the extremely important self-love, that linger in the mirror a little longer love, allow yourself some self-indulgence sometimes, love. You may have understood your reflection a little sooner, love, if only you had stopped looking at it through love-tainted frames.

She had spent this morning, as she had done almost every morning for the past two months, using her blanket as a shield to protect her from the incessant ringing of the phone–

Talk to us! Are you alright? He was wrong for that. She will never be a fraction of the woman you are. I hear the wedding is the same day. I mean how disrespectful! Hmmmm. Are you alright?

She was embarrassed, because she was playing true to type. She had turned into the woman she had always heard about, that woman who searched so long she ended up losing her way in the deceiving maze of nostalgia, that woman who woke up every day for months and years looking for a sign, for hope, for “closure”, and the greatest of these, love.

White Noise

In this house, we deal almost entirely in crossed signals. The soundtrack– chairs scraping back night after night, with black tracks on linoleum as the only indication that we ever sit together. Together. Occupying the same air space where sound bytes slide past each other and fall into the resigned oblivion pooling at our feet like endless yards of yarn that will probably never knit themselves into a baby’s blanket. A silent chorus, no one can hear you no matter how loud you scream. White noise plays on and on into our forever– birdsong, forks against empty plates, teeth brushing at dawn, drawers and doors slammed into splinters, all combined and all white noise. The transmission of my self-discovery, the groans of my growing pains have been scrambled by the screeching of car tires, by keys slammed on a freshly polished table, by sighs that scream I give up, more disheartening than actual barks of anger. I have tried to speak the miserable lines of verse that form my thoughts for you to decipher, but I now realize that you are not equipped to interpret the fine-tuned tones of my cries, or perhaps you do not want to. So we continue to speak across purposes, exchanging false exclamations- Oh my goodness, she is so big now- with neighbors and flinging hymns we do not mean up to heaven every other Sunday. Ours is not discord or cacophony, it is parallel beams so removed from each other that they eventually diverge, defying the realms of possibility and any chance we have of being together.

Change of Address

You will

Carry home pressed between the pages of a worn Bible you picked up from your grandfather’s desk when no one was watching. Object furiously anytime someone suggests that you must pledge allegiance to a particular patch of earth within a fixed grid reference. Cradle the sparkling new symbols of your settling down in your fingers, or squeeze them in your palm until they leave an angry imprint of their ridges, a symbol of permanence- or transience- scars fade so soon you often do not notice their departure. Attempt to find home in hasty embraces only half-finished before retreating back merges with next street corner. Scratch at the empty bases of cardboard boxes hoping to clutch remains of childhood blankets and title deeds turned to dust and stuffing of tattered cushions. Sift through misery-laden song lyrics hoping that one day you will find the exact a-minor that rings like the doorbell on that termite-ridden porch a few yesterdays ago. Skim text messages and voicemails, discarded shopping lists and notes written in a hasty scrawl, please mop when you get the chance- try and fail to replicate the warmth of that particular space between arm and chest which you once inhabited so comfortably. Nurse the fear that home will grow to be a place that you detest, one cold long corridor singing with the screams of the unstable, that makes your skin crawl, silent apart from the crunch of eggshells and broken glass beneath your feet, a place where weather patterns and traffic circulation are often discussed for lack of anything more thrilling, a place that you threaten to swallow with the gaping yawns that betray your boredom. Continue to seek home in the spaces between broken benches, chalked on the bricks  of rundown buildings, inside luggage carousels from airport to airport, and in the faint smell of sweat left on your pillowcase.

Image source: Amateur photograph taken by me on the porch at home in Accra, Ghana. December 2014

Waste Paper

Crumpled and tossed, little white flowers decorating the small waste basket in the corner.
I sat in a crumpled heap of bones and tissue and sighs in the same corner where I just- sat.
Punching bag stuffed with 100% prime softer than soft, guaranteed to absorb knuckle bleeds and tears of frustration.
Disclaimer: not equipped to withstand the harder knocks; prior preparation and reinforcement is required in order to assure minimal damage.
I picked at the frayed ends of my spirit to pass the time, knowing such tears could not be mended and that it was only a matter of time before the rips cut through to the very end, or beginning- the origin and terminus of my life cycle. Worn down and transparent, like all my efforts to stop pipe leaks with silk scarfs and promises.
We are grateful for the services rendered, but they are no longer needed at this time. No, there is no need for explanation or clarification. We are sure the product has served it’s purpose in the way it was designed to do.
Spent.

Happy Song

Today there is only your favorite song playing on the radio, and your freshly washed feet meeting the cool of the tiled floor. Right now your life is a little country music cliché and a lot of laughter because no one can understand what a banjo and some blues have to do with you all the way here in Adenta. This very moment is the first lick of a FanPop, even more refreshing because the weather is…well we would know if we checked (although we never do) but it’s probably 33 degrees celsius, like yesterday, today and for a million tomorrows. This is your hand nestled in his palm, slightly sweaty but just enough for you to ignore it and continue to paddle in your contentment, the breeze whisking your braids in your face, and a wave running through the spaces between your toes and back into the ocean.

For the Ones with Backbones of Steel

For someone very dear to me whose birthday just passed, and for all my other unintentional muses who keep appearing in my writing no matter what I do. 

And it was that day that the process was complete. You emerged a lot less like a triumphant phoenix, and more like a jumbled mix of bones and cartilage, and hopes for the future dead before they had a chance to sprout in your fertile mind. You were left with cries and sirens and arms cradling the air, a soul too vast to be contained by all those that depended on you, those that fed off your vitality.

So you shrunk the parameters, and your once-infinite wing span diminished to cradle growing bodies, to re-assemble scattered bones, re-twist frayed ends. And you replaced the metallic fragments within yourself, piece by painful piece, binding each one in an alloy of the ashes left of all your losses, and your unbendable iron audacity. But were it not for your steel-clad spine, the frame of that house of twigs would have fallen immediately, so frail was it that the mere thought of a breeze originating in God’s mind would have caused it to topple before the wind even touched the earth. But were it not for the one with the metallic skeleton, calcified determination and baptism of fire, the little weaklings would have remained as dust sitting lightly on top of a tombstone.

As for you, you were bent out of shape. Stretched far too early, de-natured, violated. Your early stages were invaded with the impurity of cancerous growth and no massaging hands or earnest tears, pleas to God for help could halt the corrupting agent in its tracks. You were engulfed in smoke and the fragrance of sauces left to simmer until just right, and the stench of nervous sweat and the mist of regret and lost youth. Your spine bent even more under the weight of your newborn burden, deformed adolescence mangled by full-grown fragility. Stretched to its limit, your frame threatened to buckle and shatter under the weight that was piling up on top of your head, on your shoulders, around your wrists and your ankles. You saw yourself in metal pots, and syringes, and forceps, and rusty hubcaps, and every glance at the mirror confirmed that you were rusting from the inside out. Too early, long before your warranty was up. Metal to metal, teeth grinding into dull rounded edges, you were breaking down. Even the clear air blowing over your person brought more harm and less refreshment. Isn’t it frightening that the very things we depend on can poison us slowly?

They had begun to mine, to loot, to excavate your fleshy remains. Turning your bones into cheap tiaras, and cutlery, and fillings for rotting teeth beyond the point of saving. But landslides and earthquakes happen for a reason. You were no longer going to be the benevolent source of sustenance for all that is wrong with this world. You mended your own broken parts, refusing my feeble offers of assistance. And now I only wish you could lend me some of yourself, galvanize my decaying insides, as if you don’t do enough already.

When you soiled your dress

Another day, another class assignment. This was an exercise in ekphrasis, also known as a vivid description of a scene, or more commonly, a work of art. We had about 30 minutes to stare at a photograph we’d never seen before, allow it to move us, and produce a poem or some other poem-like construction from it. The photo I chose was a woman in a white dress running through a field of grass away from the camera. I could have easily looked at it as a carefree, hopeful image, which is exactly why I went with option B: the most depressing interpretation I could come up with. You may have noticed that I often go with option B…Enjoy.

*******

I watched as the juice dripped down your chin, lingering at the point for a brief moment before dropping onto your mother’s white chiffon hand-me-down. This feels like tomorrow, like the expectant ache in your back you always complained about after you had danced too hard or stretched too far forward to see what horizons were unfurling themselves before your forever. Tomorrow, like our favorite patch of grass still cool and itchy with anticipation before we destroyed it, sitting too long and bathing in woe-is-me, stubborn inertia sitting solidly in the path of progress. You shall not go. You know what you did. You drowned tomorrow in self-indulgent tears. What-was-to-be choked and died, dirty saltwater spilling out of its every orifice. Today, you should be ashamed of the luxury you abused, flying off on the back of oblivion instead of facing your crimes. Look what you’ve done to you. To her. To us. And look, you even ruined your dress.

Yawning Wide Nothing

This is something I wrote for my poetry seminar yesterday. We had a day off from school because there was this insane thing happening where actual ice falls from the sky and just lies in wait for you to slip and fall on it the moment you step outside…Anyway, we only had two hours to write a poem or a piece of flash fiction including ten words from a list of forty somewhere in our work. The instructions were more complicated than that, but I’ll spare you the details. I can’t say that I’ve always been a believer in organized creativity, if I was I would probably post on this blog a lot more regularly than I do. BUT, I must say this came out better than I expected. It’s actually the only thing I’ve written for this class so far that I am not horribly ashamed of. Yes to giving myself time limits and writing by numbers?

******

She stood at the edge of memory, calloused toes gripping the edges of her too small sandals, cracked palm open and upward. Open. Yawning like the harsh white sky, empty of rain clouds and compassion. Her skinny brown legs were planted to the ground, on a strip of red earth somewhere between despair and peaceful expiration, open mouth yawning like the cavernous nothing at the bottom of her stomach. Give us something to eat please, it’s been a few lifetimes since we were last satisfied. She strained her eyes, hoping to see past the border of beyond, looking for- what? Manna from heaven, smoke from the last coal pot, grains of salt falling like hail, a tornado- whisking across the thirsty soil and gathering her up into its empty center. A passage toward safety, the road away from Sodom and Gomorrah- don’t you know light cannot escape from a black hole? She clutched a fist to her thin chest, flimsy membrane barely containing the barren soul beneath it and the ancestral ruins constructed there, and orange seeds, and chicken feathers. She yawned and picked her teeth with a shard of bone.