The car stopped in front of a glass door facing the street. The driver opened the trunk. Ifunanya got out. She took out shopping bags, eight of them, all from Walmart. She struggled getting the trunk closed. She gave the driver a cheery wave and mouthed a thank you, a gratitude she didn’t feel: that ride took nearly ten dollars out of her account. She was going broke by the minute. She could take the bus, but she didn’t understand the routes.
She walked to the glass door, moved the grocery bags on her right hand to her left, and pulled it open. She felt out of place. To her left and right were office spaces. The front desk had Morgan S. curlicued on the wooden name plague, but whoever the name belonged to was nowhere to be found. The walls of the building were stark white; they made her feel like a mistake, like a lone blemish on a bleached-white sheet. The high ceiling shot out yellow bulbs that attacked her with brightness. She quickly turned to rush out through the door, but the cooking pots in her grocery bags clanked against each other loudly and gave her presence away. A blonde head bobbed up from a cubicle. It belonged to a lady in a pink suit who walked out to meet her with a tight smile on her face.
Americans all had that automatic smile they gifted strangers which made Ifunanya wonder if it was a tradition, one whose origin was long forgotten. She never met a person here who didn’t smile at her. She wondered what would become of her if she went home to Nigeria and introduced that tradition to total strangers on the street. She was sure they would avoid making eye contact with her because they would tag her a mad person. Either that, or she could get slapped. Life was hard enough in Nigeria without having to add the tension of being smiled at by total strangers who could be mentally ill, for all one knew.
“I’m sorry, am not sure this is the right building. I am looking for Bellepoint Leasing.”
“Sorry, what did you say?” the lady asked, the smile completely wiped off now.
Ifunanya closed her eyes. This was one thing she found infuriating and discomfiting, having to repeat herself several times to be understood, while having to hide her embarrassment. It was all the more embarrassing in class, whenever she was forced to repeat herself to a professor or colleagues who looked at her like she was speaking Chinese in an English class.
She opened her eyes and worded her question slowly as though talking to a child, so the pink-suited lady could catch her accent.
“That would be this way,” the lady said, the smile returning. She steered Ifunanya without touching towards the door, then pointed to the rows of buildings to the left and told her Bellepoint Leasing was the third one down, offered a cryptic “have a nice day!” as she rushed back inside.
Ifunanya looked around the street and then stared down at her clothes. She hadn’t had a bath that morning before heading out. She wouldn’t let herself settle in the comfort of a soothing hot shower because she felt she didn’t deserve the indulgence, with everything going on, with the message in the text that kept ringing in her head. The finality of it. She had quickly clamped her bra to her chest, thrown a rumpled blue shirt on, dragged up a white-and-blue-stripped-trousers and pulled a brown hat over a crumpled face she had rushed into the bathroom to wash. It was going to be a busy day.
She’d had to get a money order from Walmart for her new apartment, shop for essentials, and finally drop off the money order at the leasing office. All this without having a car or enough money or knowing how to get things done in America. But now she looked at herself and realised how disoriented and perhaps homeless she must have looked to the lady, walking into a high-profile building like that clutching shopping bags, how out of place she felt in the downtown street. She wished she had taken her time to shower and cared about what she put on.
She walked to the third building and saw a red drop-box with instructions taped on it, to insert money-orders there. Her eyes narrowed. She had expected to hand her money to a real person, a person she could hold accountable should the money go missing. She pulled the door open. A small, delicate looking, middle-aged woman in silver-rimmed glasses stood in front of her, giving her the same automatic smile. Ifunanya spoke slowly, to make sure the woman got it the first time, that she was there to drop off her money order for her new apartment. The woman nodded profusely as she listened, her short white hair scattering all about her face. She took the envelope Ifunanya held out, thanked her and shut the door. Despite herself, Ifunanya thought it was amusing: they would take her money, but not let her in.
She stood beside the drop-box and ordered another ride. Shola, the same driver who had dropped her off popped up again. She thought of cancelling. She didn’t feel up to indulging in chatter the familiarity of the situation would create. While she waited, she looked around, admiring the imposing, gothic style buildings on the street. The style of buildings one found in Europe. Not that she had been to any countries in Europe, but she saw the style in magazines and in photos of white models that flooded the Instagram pages she followed. Buildings with white-washed stone walls that seemed to hold in secrets that called you to uncover them.
The atmosphere reminded her of Nigeria, of Lagos, of Lekki. It had that faint, salty smell and tinge in the air that made you look around for the ocean. It was soothing. She took a mental note to drive back here just to explore the buildings and walk around the street, in future, when she had a car. When, despite herself, she didn’t want to use the conditional if, because it was too pessimistic.
The car stopped in front of her and she got into the passenger seat, grocery bags and all. Shola, who looked Nigerian, had a Nigerian name, but didn’t speak English like a Nigerian, turned to her. “There you are again!” she said. Ifunanya smiled stiffly and reclined into the seat, hoping Shola would sense she didn’t want a chat. Shola did and concentrated on the road. Ifunanya sighed in relief and settled into the seat, thinking of the bleak road ahead of her.
He had sent her a text the day before, informing her of the end of their five years marriage. The message was almost celebratory. She had read and re-read it, shifting her weight around on the bed, aiming for a position that would help her absorb the weight of what happened. True, they had both been unhappy. His unhappiness occasioned by hers, that they knew before it happened this was the way it would go. Still, now that she pictured the return of her bride-price, the coming together of elders in her village, for a giving and a taking back, the acceptance of a rejection, she was overcome by a palpable shame. The message had made her cover her face with her hands against the fluorescent light.
Now, again, she felt her hands moving up of their own volition, to cover her face. Like a storm, the news would topple everything that tried to hold it back. The location of the place did not help matters. She was in America and had joined the league of women and men who travelled out of their home countries and got separated from their spouses.
She had pulled out her phone from underneath her pillow, re-reading the message. Severed. Returned. Today. She slid the phone back under the pillow and dragged the duvet over her face.
If anyone asked her how they came to separate, she wouldn’t know how to say what little she knew to say. How could she explain she didn’t feel up to it anymore? That she denounced motherhood because of what it did to her sister?
“Left or right?” Shola asked, turning back to stare at Ifunanya.
“What?” Ifunanya blurted out, sitting up from her slouching position. “What did you say?”
“Do I take the left turn or right?” Shola offered again, her eyes like large crystals on her black face. Ifunanya tore her eyes away from the earnest ones that held hers and looked at the road in front of them. They were already on her street, and she hadn’t noticed. The dwarf signboard on the right side of the lawn carried Crest View Apartments in its arms.
“I’m so sorry. Please take the left turn.”
She called out the code to Shola as they drove through the security check. Shola drove lazily up to her front lawn and stopped. Ifunanya gathered the grocery bags, clicked open the door, and gave a curt thank you to Shola. That would be $10.99 off her account. She had only $250 left to her name. She really needed to understand the bus routes.
She walked past her door, not wanting to be accosted yet by past images of her and him floating around the house, laughing, cooking, eating, having sex, and then fighting and welcoming the loud silences they began to share when things started to fall apart. The house choked her. She was all alone in it. All traces of him gone. But she was grateful to him for letting her stay till she got a place of her own.
She walked past her apartment building to the trail behind it. The dry grass crunched under her weight. It was late summer. The fall would be coming in a month. A squirrel high up on a tree took a notice of her and jumped down to the ground. It ran toward her, stopped as it was about fifty feet away from her, and looked at her. There was something imploring in the way that it looked up at her, the way it held its two hands together. She stood still, gazing at it, careful not to startle it away. She wanted to believe it had a message for her, one of hope that everything would be alright. Her eyes welled up. She thought the squirrel got teary, too, because its tiny oval eyes took on a watery shine. She felt a connection between them, a question asked and an answer given. The squirrel hopped off back onto the tree, in the same way it had come, and she was left thinking she had imagined the moment.
The lake beside the trail she had come to call Ogbanenu welcomed her with a stillness she always felt comforted by. She took her favourite spot in front of it and dropped her grocery bags around her. The first time she had come to the lake was few weeks after she arrived in Cheyenne. It was on one of those days she idled away in the house while Henry was away at work. There had been no chores to keep her busy, so she decided to go on a trail quest and couldn’t contain her joy when she stumbled across the lake. Back home in Nigeria, she loved to go to Ogbanenu, her village stream. Her first trip to Ogbanenu was a long, arduous one that put her in mind of the story of Nwakaneze, the mythical child hero of a folktale, who crossed seven rivers and climbed seven mountains to wage war against a large animal that had swallowed his entire village, his family included. Now, she felt like Nwakanaeze again, having crossed the Atlantic herself. But whatever battles brought her here, she had clearly lost the first round.
She had not wanted to be married just yet and had told Henry so the first time they met in Akure at the university cafeteria.
“Why?” he’d asked, sipping his Fanta from a glass cup. She had hers with a straw and had offered him one from the plastic wrapper, but he refused, saying it was a woman’s way.
“Look at me,” he had said, blowing up his chest. “I’m a man.”
She had looked at him, taking in his manliness. He was dressed in plain-blue shirt and dark green trousers. He was clean-shaven, just like she liked her man to be. His eyes were daring in the way they looked at her until she looked away. She could tell he found her attractive from the way he stared. Who wouldn’t? She smiled to herself. She was a belle. A six-foot, sunny belle. People called her Bianca, after Bianca Ojukwu because she looked just like her. Back in school, Chiederago, her best friend had tried to poison her with insecticide because she was jealous of her, of her beauty. Henry wasn’t handsome, but he had a cocky confidence that made up for it. And that attracted her.
Between sucking and swallowing the Fanta, Ifunanya had told him she had her life ahead of her.
“Your life ahead of you,” he had playfully snickered. “How old are you?” he raised an eyebrow.
She had found his knack for “hitting the nail on the head” as he called it, rather funny and strange. Like how he had jumped the queue to get to her as they waited to be served food. He had stopped in front of her and brandished his palm.
“Good afternoon, I am Henry. Could we sit at the same table?” he had said, shaking her hand vigorously.
They sat at the table he pointed out. Even though she thought he had been too forward, it was a lazy Friday at the office, so she went with the flow of him.
While they ate their plates of Jollof rice, Henry offered his age, unasked. Forty-one. He would be married before the year ended, he said.
Ifunanya felt she had to reciprocate that and told him she was twenty-five, fresh out of a Bachelor’s program at the university where she now had a job that afforded her comfort. She wasn’t looking to settle down just yet. She wanted to focus on work.
The months that went by saw Henry at his most salesman self. She was old enough to be married, old enough, he said repeatedly. Ifunanya felt what he wanted to say but didn’t was that she was too old. He convinced her and again, she went with the flow that he offered.
The marriage ceremony was quick and straight to the point, like Henry. After the wedding, she happily moved from Akure to Lagos, to start her home with him, even though sometimes she missed her personal space. It was a space where she could let herself go and do whatever she wanted, as it occurred to her, at her own time. A space that promised poems because of its quietness, and made her play with the idea of getting out a collection. With Henry, responsibility kept her on her toes. She was eager to do anything that would bring a dance of approval into his eyes. Whenever she did her hair in a new way, she studied Henry to see his reaction. If he loved it, she kept at it; if he didn’t, she never made it again. He changed her wardrobe, getting her clothes he was sure she would look better in, even down to her undies. She revolved around him and he in turn showed her off as the trophy he had won and adorned his house with. But when she had two miscarriages in nine months, she began to worry that she wouldn’t be a trophy fit anymore for him.
She apologised for the third and the fourth one after that. It was all her fault. She would stop working at the Logistics Company.
“It’s not your fault, Nanya,” Henry consoled, without meeting her stare.
After the fifth miscarriage, when Henry was forty-three and she was twenty-seven, and he stopped going with her to the hospital, her gynaecologist told her to rest easy and stop trying too hard. She agreed, relieved because she no longer felt up to it anymore. Henry’s job offer in America and the green card it offered was the revival their marriage needed. Enthusiasm about his travel and their life in America broke through the wall of the silences they had begun to share. The late harmattan of February saw him boarding his flight to Cheyenne. Ifunanya was to join him later in the year when her student visa got approved. They had decided to take the faster route of student visa.
Between waiting hopefully for her interview date and preparing for her travel, Ifunanya travelled to see her older sister, Grace, who had just put to bed in Onicha. Grace was thirty-eight when she married Dan, and everyone in the family had worried about her ability to get pregnant or even birth a healthy child because of her age which was considered too old for childbearing. But at thirty-nine, a baby healthily grew in her despite the fibroid her womb had developed when it ached for a child but found none. Chiazom, her niece, came into the world bearing a large fibroid tissue in her hands, a gift to the world.
Ifunanya had gone to see them one last time before leaving for America, and ended up helping out their mother in the omugwo, cleaning up after rotund new mother and her crying bundle. Like a nurse, she took up cleaning Grace’s vagina with hot water and Dettol “to prevent a smell,” as Grace’s nurse had told them over the phone while suppressing a yawn.
Ifunanya almost threw up the first time she saw her sister’s post-delivery vagina. It was torn to shreds with the razor-blade the nurses had carelessly and impatiently used on it to bring out the child. The stitching they quickly arranged in remedy was weak and had peeled off, revealing light-red insides that held in ripe puss and oozed an unpleasant smell.
Ifunanya would stare at her little niece, cherubic, silent, lying in her white cot, and at her sister’s vagina, at the destruction her birthing caused, and wonder if she was worth all that. All that smell and tear and pile that surged from the anus as her sister shat her out. Her sister sensed her recoil from the wound each time she cleaned her up, and would try to get her out of it by telling her there were other ways. Like C-section. “But there was no money for that,” her sister would say every time, without prompting. But Ifunanya would leave Grace’s room after each cleaning, totally devastated, a tremor of disgust running through her body when she imagined herself in her sister’s state.
She felt grateful for her miscarriages, and then guilt and shame that she would feel that way. She realised she was doing all this, playing the part for Henry, for everyone. It was what was expected of her. She had been going with the flow of expectations, the natural order of things, and didn’t stop to see if she’d rather be flowing a different direction, until her sister’s vagina.
But it was selfish and unspeakable, this current she now found herself unnaturally flowing toward. She had never met a woman who ran away from that privilege; it was the very essence of being a woman, to birth life. She would be tagged mad at best for running from it. So, she had told no one but neatly tucked these thoughts into her mind like she tucked her clothes into her luggage, and cheerily and tearfully kissed her family goodbye.
She broke down months after she arrived in Cheyenne. She tried hard to be her normal self, but the thoughts closed her thighs, made them heavy to open for Henry. And they began to quarrel. When she could no longer take it, she poured out her heart to him in the sitting room, begging for the option of adoption. Henry shut his eyes as he sat listening to her. When she finished, he shut his heart, too. He could not understand why the wife he paid for and owed her family nothing, would denounce her duty to him.
He got up from the sofa, bent down to her level on the wooden floor and slapped her hard across the face. Once. He accused her of deliberately miscarrying all the while, waiting for the opportunity of an enabling climate like the one they were in to shirk her duties. She took it all in silence. She deserved his interpretations however they were. She was a disappointment. She had dreaded this climax, that for weeks she thought of running away, quitting school, going back to Nigeria. Anything to avoid the confrontation and all that would follow. Henry didn’t waste time to call home. He needed the bride price he paid on her returned by her family. He could not stay married to a fellow man. A woman who ran away from her natural order was a man, useless. He was already forty-six, too old, without a child. He gave her a month to remain in the apartment until she got a place of her own. She thanked him. He was far too kind, considering the situation.
The calls from home came. Her mother’s first and most earnest. Ifunanya cried with her on the phone, apologising for failing to have her come to America for omugwo. For the confusion that she was. She had no answer to her mother’s many whys despite the litany that rang in her head:
Torn carelessly with razor blade.
The rotten stench it gave off.
The pile surrounding her anus.
The innocent child in the white crib that caused it all.
She was possessed by an evil spirit, they all told her. They begged her to come back for prayers and spiritual cleansing from the uchu that had befallen her mind.
“It is a blessing, Ifunanya. A blessing,” her mother told her, trying to get her to see that the blessing was indeed a blessing.
“You are a goddess of life,” her mother had cried on the phone. Ifunanya wanted desperately to believe her, but Grace hadn’t looked like a goddess to her as she lay splayed out on the bed like stale meat.
Her mother cried. Ifunanya begged to be understood.
“You will still come and be with me,” she told her mother, even though she didn’t know how her life would go, leaving the security her marriage provided and trudging it out alone with only a thin stipend as research assistant to hang her neck on.
“To come and do what?”
Traveling to America for omugwo was the only meaningful thing to a woman of her mother’s age. They never spoke again until the day her bride price was returned.
She got up and walked close to the lake. The sun was retreating slowly away from it. She took off her yellow slip-ons and, without rolling up her trousers, dipped her feet into the water. The water flapped around her ankles. She closed her eyes, welcoming the gnawing awareness of being alone. She felt like a tiny seedling, one of many, snapped out of the fold by the sun, left to sprout its own shoot.
is currently an MFA candidate in Fiction at Wichita State University, USA, where she is a graduate teaching assistant. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and Literature from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State, and a Master’s degree in English from the University of Ibadan, Oyo State. Her work has appeared in Brittle Paper, Glass mountain, Soro Soke, and forth coming in others. Her twitter handle is @ChinonyelumAny1.