Declining Balance

It was very easy to argue in favor of her choosing a different path in life– not her words– so much so that she began to spend more time imagining said “different path” instead of trying to decipher the one she was currently pursuing. That is how she came to find herself digging through crumbling papers destined for some recycling plant, looking over patterns which she had dreamed up but never materialized in silk and twill. This backtracking had turned into her paying her daily respects to an ambition– gone to soon, we hardly knew her– followed by a brief glance at the bottom line of her checking account that seemed to be sinking faster with every passing day. She would go through this routine devotedly and with the kind of concentration she was not able to dedicate to her designs so that when he got home, she was primed for another argument about who was spending what and how it came to be that all they had to show for their collective potential and talent was a roach-infested apartment with heating that worked only when it felt so inclined and bills stamped with ominous block lettering. Past due.

There was a time when peace hung from their curtain rods, fluttering in front of half-open windows every time the breeze drifted in. Peace lingered on sticky spoons left on the kitchen table in anticipation of the next cup of tea; it played in the spaces between their fingers and traced the contours of their faces as they slept. She began to hide the grand visions she once entertained in the crook of his arm, and he laid his work ethic in the smooth space at the base of her throat. Eventually, they realized that the roots of their serenity lay uneasily in the shallow soil of financial stability. The contentment they once knew now sat in the first desk drawer on the right hand side nestled beneath phone bills and statements for credit cards that had long been declined by an apologetic salesperson. They had burnt their futures with incense–just for the scent– in the shrine of their mutual obsession. The ashes hung thickly in the room as they sat glaring at each other night after night. The haze was getting harder to see through until they sat in bitter silence, not seeing each other at all.

Rewritten

You search for a word to describe the loaded pause in a baby’s cry, crumpled face frozen for a few long seconds before the real pain is wrenched out of its body. You try repeatedly to rearrange subjects and objects in such a way that the reader will feel the same twist in their abdomen that you felt the first time you witnessed this. You thumb through crumbling dictionaries and scan cleverly curated lists online for untranslatable words and emotions. There must be some speakers of a language you have never heard before that can accurately describe this moment which up until now has grazed the edge of your fingertips, missing your keyboard by the minutest distance. You hold your breath, hoping that by simulating this agonizing breathlessness, the words to describe it will stir from the floor of your lungs and make their way out of your mouth. Words are your daily sustenance, but in this instance any metaphors you can imagine are rotting in the back of your fridge, clinging to a wall of ice and congealed juices. You include your description of this ambiguous moment anyway. Surely anyone who has had to care for a younger sibling or neighbor or distant relative’s child (or all of the above) will know what it feels like to have their misery balanced at a single point on top of their head for five seconds or an eternity before it comes crashing down all over their shoulders. You have written about it anyway, only to find a red line through your words, invalidating that such a moment actually exists. Rewrite for clarity. Or delete.

 

At a Stranger’s Funeral

The back of the pew is the only thing holding up your spine, and so you bear the discomfort in silence. The sounds of mourning hang around your head like the sheet of hair you chopped off that day you decided you were looking for a reawakening. How does it feel to attend a stranger’s funeral? It feels like someone close to you died and everyone forgot to tell you, so that when you got home and saw the slippers still perched at the threshold of the door and Our Daily Bread folded on the bedside table you didn’t suspect anything. The deceptive warmth of the mug of coffee in the kitchen and the indent in the cushion on the left side of the sofa led you to believe that this did not happen. This is what it feels like to attend a stranger’s funeral. It’s something like waking up in a hospital bed and reaching to scratch an itch on your arm only to snag your nails on the threadbare bed sheet. Or maybe you lost everything in a fire, except it can’t be because you are cradling an armful of your grandmother’s faded photo albums, and your mother is smiling at you from a sepia-tinted frame, and so are your aunts and uncles, and they have a dog called Popsy, and your grandfather is calling you to sit on his lap and tell him what you learnt at school today. So the smell scratching the walls of your lungs must be the egg you left on the stove because you had your face buried in a romance novel. You did not just come back from a long day spent in traffic and your house is still upright and not crumbling around you. Your arm is still there, and so is the person you loved, and so is the armful of ash that you insist on calling your memories. And the edge of the pew is digging into your thighs, but it is actually the side of your bathtub. It is 1am and you are in your apartment that is empty of everything but an overnight bag and the comforter that has been passing as your bed. You supposedly have “amazing things” ahead of you but right now all that exists is your naked self shivering since the towel dropped to the floor about four wails ago, and your phone won’t stop vibrating and lighting up. You don’t pick up because you have run out of ways to steady the wobble in your voice. So you will reach for their arm, or your arm, or that one treasured pile of ash that used to be a family portrait. You are not really here and everything is as it should be.

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.