(The Final) Inventory

For some reason, I keep coming back to this piece I wrote in 2015 called Inventory, and the short story I tried to make out of it (here and here). I’m still not interested in finishing it, nor am I any more inclined to start writing *that* immigrant student story that so many African literary critics and readers have declared self-indulgent, tired, and geared towards the “Western gaze.” These critiques of others work aren’t a deterrent for me at all, partly because I hate being told what to do, but mainly because I’m just far more excited by being able to set stories in Accra or in some other magical African diasporic elsewhere that only exists in my imagination (shout out to the thesis I should be working on!) I think i’ve returned to this old story again because I’m finally at a place where the real events that inspired the writing aren’t as upsetting to me as they once were (and I mean both the things I did and those that were done to me). I left out the most hurtful parts that were a little too real, and altered certain details to make the protagonist feel a little less like me. I can’t claim to know what “letting go” really looks like, except to say that for me it’s a continuous process that feels more final and successful on some days than others.  

***

assorted lingerie

I think the store assistant called them “periwinkle.” I couldn’t be sure, because she was evidently uninterested in my stuttering inquiries; the novelty of mocking nervous first-time shoppers had long evaporated and she blinked slow lids up and down as though she was minutes from falling asleep. “So, do you want these gift-wrapped, or not?”  I liked this particular pair of panties because their color was somewhere between purple and blue. The white lace trim reminded me of the heavy porcelain jewelry box a distant aunt had given me as a gift at a time when I was far too young and not pretentious enough to appreciate faux Victorian-era trinkets with November dust permanently stuck in its crevices. I already had a bra to match, and I stood in the crowded hall at Union Station grinning like a birthday girl because I felt as though I had a secret destined only for your discovery.

You were going to be visiting family in Maryland for the summer, a 30-minute drive from where I lived in DC, and I found it to be the perfect opportunity to make poor attempts at hiding the bitterness which I spat at you on a video call.

Ugh. I just– I hate to be selfish or to even bring this up at all, but I’m the one always coming up to see you though I know you can afford the trip and then some. You know I’m on work study, and this summer my campus job only gives me four days off, but my roommate is away, we can have the place to ourselves and I just–

I have to admit that I didn’t do a good job of concealing the manipulation I had fooled myself into calling I-just-want-to-spend-time-with you and It’s-only-fair. Emotional blackmail was only  if you looked closely and a little too long at the shadows behind words and the pauses between them.

“Hmmm. Ok you…I’ll see what I can do.”

Yesss alright! So here’s what I was thinking. There’s a Ghanaian restaurant in Adams Morgan–

“I’m not making any promises though, so don’t get too excited.”

I had been fidgeting with the pink tissue paper my new underwear came wrapped in, but for some reason your response made me want to rip it between my jaws and stuff it down my throat. I was getting what I  wanted, what was my problem now? I wanted you to come and visit me, but I also wanted you to want the exact same thing and to be happy about it. Be happy, whatever it takes.

I stood at the station with one hand behind my back, just above the point where the blue lace began, pulling imaginary puppet strings so that when I spotted you walking the yellow-lined maze of the parking garage, I could almost pretend that you did not already have a strained expression on your face. We would act out a scene from one of those novelas that used to bring us to the point of tearful laughter, because the characters had pale faces but had been dubbed to speak English just like we did, complete with “oh” and “ei” to show alarm.

You would set your weekend bag on the ground next to your feet and sweep me up into the air in a ridiculous spin of euphoria, and old women pushing babies in strollers and young couples sharing ice cream cones would smile at us indulgently as we said hellos set to background music of whiny guitar strings. The reality was that the ground was spotted with puddles of engine oil and dirty rainwater and you would never set down your expensive suede duffel on it, and the lovely grandmas and picture perfect couples were actually frustrated travelers with curved pillows dangling from their necks and toddlers screaming their exhaustion as they trailed behind.

“So are you gonna move? Goddam disrespectful kids…”

I don’t know why you’re angry. It’s not my fault the bus was delayed.

I don’t know why you’re even here. Nobody forced you to come.

Now my hands often wander to the part of my hip where the bone juts out, and it feels rough and unpleasant, as if someone has filed it down in an attempt to make it softer, less obtrusive. I realize that it is the imprint left from the lace scratching me in the same place every time, imprinting on my skin with its curling patterns intended to look like flowers. I am wounded in the same spot where your persistent hands burnt through the fabric with urgency like latent heat, so that the scar now looks more like the inside of a dead tree, each swirl and crisscrossing lines showing just how long this excruciating process of “getting over it” is going to take.

I begin to rifle through the underwear folded in my top drawer, checking the seams and frills, ripping out loose threads every so often. I even used my teeth to pull out the cream lace from that bra you liked. I didn’t realize those were the same threads tying the muscles in my face together to keep myself from slipping sideways and away.

1 ring finger (loosely jointed)

I’ve taken to cracking the ring finger on my left hand, so I’ll take out the knuckle and place it beside all my other things. It’s relatively easy to do, but the difficult part comes when I try to pry the residue of back-when-it-was-different from underneath my fingernails. I’m trying to sift through all the mistakes to find out when the gap between what I thought and what I actually said began to widen, until I learned to fill it with what you wanted me to say. I’m taking stock of myself today. I’m digging through empty chewing gum wrappers at the bottom of my handbag and scrolling through unanswered messages, trying to locate the moment my weight threatened to snap your back, or the moment I realized that with you I was the worst possible version of myself. Was it when the formerly steady stream of phone calls dwindled to a reluctant drip? Or when you were very clear that I was “stuck in the past, acting like we’re still 17 and 18 in high school” and didn’t I know that we had left the “honeymoon phase” behind? Or maybe it was when you started assigning “points” to rate my performance as someone who was supposed to love you; thumbs up for driving to your house late at night in a car I’m still scared to drive, and for performing remorse for all the self-centered monologues I forced you to endure about school, friends, the weather. Penalties for refusing to drive you to town for dinner, for bowing my head and letting you call me out my name and “call me out”–

“Shame on you. You don’t try. Are you…crying? You know I’m a bully, right?”

Is that a smile? Is that the sound of you enjoying this?

I hope that one day we can meet at one of those over-priced restaurants close to my job, where bright red umbrellas stand next to storefronts almost entirely covered in gold paint and stamped all over with the same designer logo. We can pass empty conversation back and forth between ourselves.

“I finally got the investment bank job I’ve been sweating for.”

That’s nice. Happy for you. I’m thinking of applying to grad school. Can’t work retail forever. At least I can say I really understand people now? Should help with psych, right?

Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Actually, let’s not. I still have a lot of self-cataloguing to do, and your “bullying” has set me back much further than I may ever be able to catch up. It’s taken me so long to discover that I may have been asking the wrong questions, how can I be better, instead of when did you give up? Or when did you start talking to her again? When did it start feeling like cheating? I just found a scratched mix CD and a coupon for a free dance class. I’m shuffling papers for the trash and shuffling selves until I find the original one that I cracked

when I tried to fit it into the right self for you.

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.

Inventory

I wrote this prose poem a while ago and decided to try and turn it into a short story because I felt like I had a lot more to say. I soon realized that picking at old scabs and turning real life events into fiction aren’t things I’m interested in, mainly because it hurts a second time to try and make villains out of victims  (or to realize that one can be both) just for the sake of the story, or to walk back through unpleasant events that actually took place. Another difficulty I had working on this story was that it’s my first set somewhere that isn’t Ghana, and I’m not very good at or interested in doing that at the moment. The surreal is much safer territory for me and that’s where I plan to stay, at least for now. This is an extract from the story, which will probably remain unfinished indefinitely. No edits or additions, no submitting to literary blogs/journals (I usually don’t post complete short stories here because I’m trying to get them published), nothing! The story was difficult enough to write the first time around. I think I’m all good 🙂

***

1 eye liner in nuit noire shade

I’ve pulled out a few lashes from my right eye because it’s always the troublesome eye, the one that is oddly shaped and more difficult to hide behind thick coats of liner.

“What is all this black stuff? I can’t even see your eyes.”

My smile remained fixed only in the photo you took of me, ruined slightly by the table and the bright blue menu covered in plastic, and dotted with unnaturally yellow pancakes and waffles dominating the foreground. The grin slid off my face and onto my chest as I tried to formulate an airtight answer that you could not deflate with condescension. I feel braver when my eyes are obscured in black sludge and glitter. This is the only way I can feel feminine since this big chop makes me look like a duckling with the black fuzz on my head, slicked down with leave-in conditioner instead of pond water. I’m trying to look like the old photos of my mother where she was more beautiful than I grew to be, with 60s lashes standing boldly and separate from each other even though it was ’79. All of these answers were dripping with the kind of sentimental slush that you hated, so instead I said:

“Oh. You don’t like it? I’m still learning ooh, don’t worry.”

Neither of us believed the forced peals of laughter I dropped onto the diner table between us with a harsh metallic sound like coins striking granite, but you picked them up regardless of your tired distrust and shifted your weight to one side so you could shove them into the back pocket of your jeans. Later, you would attempt to dissolve the hard grains of stilted conversation that were caught in the corners of both our eyes, in tea so sickly it left smears of brown sugar on the insides of the mug, just the way I liked to drink it.

The only Boston I knew was green linoleum on the kitchen and bathroom floors, small white lines running up and down each tile like veins, it was the JFK/UMASS station with round backs covered in layer upon layer of warm clothing always retreating and advancing – which direction, Ashmont or Alewife- it was how many times can we go out for pancakes before the syrup turns into clumps blocking our arteries? It was using my arm to hide the angry smudges– one for each eye– on your pillowcases and hoping that my visit would not turn out to be a week-long sparring match in which both opponents were not interested enough to take hits at the places that mattered, resorting instead to lazy swats at the other’s ego, causing slight bruising, if even that.

***

name- unaccounted for

I’m inspecting my body for visible signs of damage, just to make sure that my skin will not betray the hurt from the sharp edges of words like: “You’re so selfish, always asking for too much.” I’m taking stock of myself, looking though archived emotions, replacing peeling labels and crossing out inaccurate ones. I’m trying to remember my name. I’ve found a folder in the back of my wardrobe, a solid blue cover and shiny silver rings on the inside. Across the front of it in threatening block letters, one word: SELFISH. I’m confronted with the moment I was given a new name, when I decided that good little Methodist girls from Adenta didn’t spit on reputable degrees before moving cities to fold and fetch overpriced clothes for women who were manicured from their teeth to the blunt ends of their ponytails, and to fold themselves into men who were unwilling hosts.

“Fafali! How can you burn scholarship money like this? What is your plan? It’s that boy, eh? Answer me!”

“Ma, I have to go. My break is over and the manager is giving me eyes.”

Selfish. My mother hurled contempt down the receiving end of the telephone, the same ugly square contraption that had always sat on her bedside table long before I was ever imagined as a small fluttering sensation against the walls of her abdomen. She was probably holding one hand suspended in front of her as she usually does when she is desperate to pull understanding of a horrifying reality out of the air around her. She did not know that I took the blank roll of paper that was pressed into my hands after four years, and used it as a map for a life I did not want to live; an empty desk for an empty office job, the desolation of a research facility with white walls and sheets of white paper with unfilled questionnaires. I often prioritize others before myself. Strongly disagree. She did not know that I had taken my new name, Selfish, the one that you gave me after the last tantrum you could endure from me:

“What’s the meaning of this?” You affected a grotesque imitation of my needy drawl, quoting one of my frenzied text messages: And you call me Fafali instead of babe or beautiful and I know I’ve crossed the line again and I’ve made you angry with me, again.

“Fafali I’m tired! You just like drama. You’re just so…so selfish! I can’t– I won’t do this anymore.”

I was sitting on your lumpy sofa that felt as though it was made of velvet, and I realized that for nearly five years I had dredged up your words in an attempt to understand what you wanted from me, sifted and separated them to the point where you just let me have them. Take them and go. Pack your things and go back to DC. Or back to Ghana. I don’t care. I have wrung my hands to the point where the skin has begun to peel off. I’ve actually gone too far to turn back. We had clung to each other beyond my morning is your late afternoon, past your at times admirable, at times half-hearted attempts to decode the tangled self I handed to you, hoping we could make sense of it together.

Now I’m working hard to scratch off your name from the inside of my cheek. I have left pieces of myself from Adenta to Georgia Ave to Dorchester and back again, flakes of skin between computer keyboards, tears warping pages of a text in another binder which proclaims ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY on its cover, childish terms of endearment in languages we have long forgotten. I’m wearing other names around my neck like self-indulgent, sexy, and you are wasting your life. My favorite name is too-beautiful-to-be-working-here, so I tuck it into all the pastel colored cardigans that occupy my days at a job I tolerate in a city that has now extended beyond the ancient linoleum in your house to the faded one in mine, to the B line always delaying and mice tap dancing on my ceiling boards at night.

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.

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…