In the middle of June, Chimagozielam called her therapist, the magician, that she’d been scheduled to have the prophylactic double mastectomy in early July. The magician flew in from Houston to Chimagozielam’s bungalow in Jefferson, Wyoming. And they had the simple dinner of soufflé under the scattering fluorescence of the chandelier. Nothing stirred the silence that ensued. Not even the clattering of forks on ceramic plates as they ate slowly. For these two were enmeshed in worlds in which nothing moved. Nothing was animate. And, sometimes stealing a glance or two at each other, they resolved that these worlds in which nothing stirred or was stirred was perfect.
Chimagozielam grew more anxious after dinner. The air, so delicate it’d deflated, and the chrome of the expiring evening went berserk. The herons perched on the magnolia tree in the compound. The herons never came except on the early mornings of May. And only they, fluttering and calling, punctured the air.
Often, in silences and strangeness as this, it was the magician who effortlessly always prodded the air with a pin, yet this time Chimagozielam cried first, and she didn’t know why. It was Chimagozielam who declared that she was not a woman.
She used to think she’d wanted to have her breasts removed to avoid breast cancer complication in future. She’d joined a Previvor Facebook Group whose monthly meetings at Katherine’s house in Pennsylvania she’d stopped attending altogether. She’d talked once at a seminary of Previvors from the Pelican state on an elegant podium filled with sheen. When they chanted, she’d chanted. When pre-mastectomy unmarried patients spoke with her at hospital wards, fearful about having no breasts milk to feed their kids, she’d motivated them in strong Igbo-accented English.
After the feferity in those days, she’d mutter to herself that this was a ruse. She was doing this to avoid future emotional complications. She did not want to go under after her own mastectomy in the near-future. She saw this ruse as faith. That BRCA1 mutation would not leave her debilitated.
“So,” the magician was saying, “what do you think you are?”
“I dunno,” Chimagozielam confessed, glancing at the fluttering of wings in the magnolia. “I just don’t feel like a woman enough. Like this body is not even mine. Like I’m not even real.”
February brought phytoplankton.
Nabeolisa propped over the balcony to watch the aposiopetic phytoplankton spread over the little shore. The horizon, she was observing, have gradually receded to the edge of the ocean. It seemed anxious to tumble out of this world into— well, anywhere, somewhere, space or whatever. But the horizon was shifting out, and the moon, used to being enormous and condescending, was now a silvery thimble on heaven’s sky.
Grrh… she was sounding poetic again. This was not her trying her hands on a novel. That was bygones for Gawsakes.
She threw the bottle of Samsara in her hand, aiming for the ocean. But the ocean, and the moon, and the phytoplankton, and the smooth shore sand, and everything belonging to the waters pranced backwards, and did so quickly that she watched the bottle crash into the crevices. Maybe landing on a schist. What returned to Nabeolisa, instead of the sore pleasure of destruction, was the bottle’s crashing. So loud, she belched at it in revenge.
The seagulls came into sight, levitating, illuminated by what lights surrounded the hotel. Those seagulls, wheeling about, were watching her. She was alert. Those mischievous things could conceive of anything, her death probably. They could launch at her decisively, catching her unaware. So, as protest, she belched. Each time any one seagull cried pan-Africanist, or Rastafarian, Nabeolisa jabbed the air with a prodded mouth, forced her lips open, grinned a little, and belched.
“Stop that, Nabeolisa,” yelled somebody. “Nobody would sleep that way.”
Nabeolisa’s fiancé, Ellah Allfrey, turned on the bed from where he yelled. He, too, was drunk. They’d been drunk since four PM when the hotelier delivered Nabeolisa’s parcel—Nabeolisa knew within herself that that slut, that hole of a cesspit, that shithead, that hussy had come to see Ellah Allfrey. They might try and fool her, those two. She wouldn’t care. They were fucking each other whenever she was out (if not, what would explain that fucking smell of semen and sex in the room whenever she stepped into it, and that choking smell of fragrance?)
Her and Ellah would use five days in this hotel anyway. This was their fifth day. So, Nabeolisa consoled herself. Fuck, how miserable the hotelier looked when she delivered Nabeolisa’s parcel. Had she been eating at all? In the lingering minutes which concealed the two’s (Ellah Allfrey’s and the hotelier’s) intentions, Nabeolisa wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of their naïvety. She slammed the door and, expecting to see Ellah slump into bed facedown, saw him prodding the parcel.
What was in it? Who sent it? Did it come from the Nobel Laureate? Perchance somewhere clandestine in Ellah Allfrey, he wanted the parcel to come from the hotelier. It had red and blue ribbon, didn’t it? Perchance the hotelier had done that as a token of love, and Ellah, gullible as he always was, anticipated a sealed letter written in the bests of Pablo Neruda’s poetic verses ending with Yours Lovely, Katherine, and a number to call.
Nabeolisa tore open the parcel, and in it was a book—Ake, The Years of Childhood— signed by the Nobel Laureate. It had indeed come from the Nobel Laureate. These failed expectations on the two sides created a kind of erotic implosion. That their love really should be pristine. Sacred. What only they shared. Ellah Allfrey pulled Nabeolisa closely and kissed her lips. They shared shots and shots of Samsara. They danced, they sang karaoke, they had sex under the fluorescence, and it was perfect.
On the night before the surgery in DC, Chimagozielam called her mother. Her mother’s voice sounded small and riddled, with blame. A trenchant criticism, bouncing off everywhere without pause. Had Chimagozielam thought longer about it, she wouldn’t have told her about the surgery.
“Nne,” her mother barked. “What is that nonsense you want to do, ehn, mutilate yourself? God did not create you well? You’re becoming those Americo-girls who come back to Nigeria fucking everybody? You want to put me to shame?”
Chimagozielam tried to explain why she needed the surgery. That without it she wouldn’t feel complete. That she’d tried to commit suicide twice. Instead, she ended the call. Chimagozielam cried, her back pressed against the wall. She wanted her mother to agree with her once. Even as a pretence. A charade. To be compassionate. To say “Jisi ike” when she needed it. To sound like an actual mother. Later, energy drained, she climbed the bed. Naked. Curled. She thought about the surgery. Only it mattered.
Nabeolisa came to DC to settle down. Each minute, indeed every second, saw her doing the opposite. She moved in and out of apartments. “This one has no garden, na,” she’d complain. “I don’t like this one’s colour.” “This one is too big.”
She moved and moved till it was July when she moved in with Judy. Judy was bright-eyed, and had lived half of her life around East Asia. She had problems with her boyfriend, Keith. So Nabeolisa could move in.
It was Judy who truly understood Nabeolisa. And it was Judy who hugged Nabeolisa when she appeared at her door. Judy didn’t say anything. She served Nabeolisa bread and tomato sauce and hot tea that night. Nabeolisa lived with Judy eight months: watching her own life bloat into Judy’s. Before she left, Judy gave her “relics” of who Nabeolisa was eight months before.
Broken: “You came, Nabeolisa, with rust in the compound of your life.”
Sacred: “Your healing process takes time. But you’re holy, and that settles it.”
Excision: “Eight months for freedom: We can’t be crazier than the world.”
Fragile: “You were crying at my door. Were you child enough?”
God’s Sacrament: “You can tie this crucifix around your neck. Let it fall on your heart. Perhaps your heart will find peace.”
Nabeolisa was not a catholic, so did not believe in the crucifix. But she kept it in her purse. When she was to meet Chimagozielam draped in warm cloth in the ward, she tried to make a relic out of an object of faithlessness.
Ten months ago in October, Nabeolisa flew home to Nnewi, Anambra. Her mother, Pacella, was peeling beans on the veranda. The succulence of Pacella’s face had dug in. Sometimes when Nabeolisa remembers Pacella, she wants to remember her father. Wants to remember them together. Maybe Pacella wanted to be able to remember, too. Why, she looked so miserable. Nabeolisa was quiet. At night as they lay out the house on a cloth of wrappers, Nabeolisa asked Pacella if she planned on getting her husband back. Pacella sighed and Nabeolisa understood.
Nabeolisa visited her father, Chiedoziem, in Aba the third day. They drank wine together at Mama Ndudi’s shop.
“You? A woman drinking wine?” Her father’s friend, Chukwuemeka, joked.
Mama Ndudi said, her voice less loud, “These children learn all these things abroad o. My son, Ndudi, called me this April. He told me he now lies on the same bed with men—” Mama Ndudi spat phlegm on the ground and trampled it. “Tufiakwa, not a child of mine. Anuofia, that boy. America does something to these children.”
Nabeolisa and Chiedoziem sat opposite each other in the parlour that night and talked about Buhari winning the election. The candle was lit, casting shadows against the wall. Chiedoziem drank his Seamans slowly, and Nabeolisa knew this was the right time. Her father was at his softest when he drank Seamans.
“Papa,” Nabeolisa was saying, “Mama misses you. Why won’t you come to Nnewi, ehn Papa, to Mama?” Nabeolisa’s voice wilted away till she was ticking, tired, a silence draping the air with half-cast shadows thrown on the walls.
She waved her hands and knew instinctively that her father was asleep. He smelled of the Seamans.
It was in 2002, the year before Chimagozielam visited Vivekenada in Brazil that Chimagozielam first thought about the possibilities of being Ala’s child. “I mean, it makes sense, right?” She asked Vivekenada.
“That I am a spirit.”
Vivekenada laughed, flustered with Chimagozielam’s naïve supposition, prying for truth with his eyes before she turned away. On the day Chimagozielam was to leave Brazil, Vivekenada told her it was very possible she was. “The Igbo ontology is very much real,” Vivekenada said. “And I do not doubt that there are people whose genders are undefined, who are, in the broadest sense, spirits, but are fitted into bodies such that they, if they live in ignorance of themselves, live in misery from within.”
Six years later, lying, draped with warm cloths for the surgery, she repeated what she’d told Vivekenada: “I am a spirit. I am a spirit. My body is not mine. I do not even exist.”
The magician flew in from Houston to Nabeolisa’s bungalow. He hesitated at the doorstep before he knocked. Three years after he and Nabeolisa broke up, he did not know what to expect, being there again, in spaces they used to share. Nabeolisa opened the door.
“Hi,” he said and chuckled, his left fist pocketed. They stood at the center of Nabeolisa’s parlour, sizzling with the thoughts of why they were there after what happened happened.
“I have a friend,” the magician said. “She’ll undergo a major surgery. I think you should meet her. I— I…” he stuttered. “She has an interesting story, yunno, you can use it in any of your stories or something.”
“You never called.”
The magician bowed his head.
“Okay, I’ll follow you, but that’s just it.”
Later, she stood beside Chimagozielam and listened to her small voice, her mouth blisters accentuating her pallid cheeks. Nabeolisa regretted coming. She should’ve closed the door on the magician. As Chimagozielam talked, Nabeolisa nodded slowly, staring at Chimagozielam’s hair bangs and the brownish thick folds of her hair. She imagined lice in them. She imagined a comb stuck at the fringe. She wondered when last it had been oiled.
Chimagozielam was glad the magician came, that he brought Nabeolisa. Chimagozielam was glad, too, for the crucifix that Nabeolisa gave her. How later, she could squeeze a saviour into her pocket.
Nabeolisa drove them home a day after the surgery. The magician left, and it was Nabeolisa who wheeled Chimagozielam to the balcony, sit her on the reclining chair, and brought her warm water when the keloids of her chest turned reddish. It was Nabeolisa who consoled Chimagozielam when she cried. Nabeolisa fed her waffles, sang her karaoke, and consoled her when her mother died three weeks later. Cancer. Nabeolisa wheeled her to the bathroom and ran a comb through her hair. She stared at Chimagozielam in the mirror. “You’re beautiful,” Nabeolisa said. And she continued running the comb over.
Nabeolisa also brought her coffee. And moved her about on a wheel. And wore her flip-flops. At night, she wore her beanies or bobble hats. In the afternoons, she watched the soup of puffins in the sky. They laughed at ridiculous things—before Chimagozielam would turn her face to cry.
Few weeks passed. Nabeolisa slept in Chimagozielam’s bed. Drove her to her post-Op visits. Judy called one evening. Keith had been sending gifts, Judy said, elated. Judy yelped when Nabeolisa told her she was crushing on someone. “I’m so happy for you,” Judy said. “You think about asking her out yet?”
Nabeolisa looked at Chimagozielam at the balcony. She feared that this revelation brought with it an uncanny solidity. Nabeolisa convinced herself her love oughtn’t to have started at the hospital. With the crucifix. With “Ms. Chimagozielam, a friend gave me this saviour. I believe in its salvation. Because of you.” Her elation, the wish to fall into Chimagozielam’s keloids and all. Nabeolisa was thinking: could this be something else? What if this wasn’t love? What if this was a ruse?
Maguerite, Chimagozielam’s friend, visited, so Nabeolisa went back to a house she wasn’t sure she fitted in anymore. Six months passed briefly with calls filled with stutters that ended abruptly. Nabeolisa would wonder if Chimagozielam’s hair had broken apart, unoiled, or what she might have done with the crucifix. She wanted to ask about the crucifix during a call once. They’d been laughing on the phone, the mood light. But she didn’t. “Will you visit?” Chimagozielam asked.
Nabeolisa made her soufflé and pomegranate juice when she visited. They danced to rock music, argued about Rastafarians, politics, books, anything there was. Chimagozielam rocked slowly, winced when her back arched, and smiled when Nabeolisa stuffed more scatter cushions at her back. Nabeolisa returned to her house not feeling a feeling she wanted to fell. Like something which was hers had been snatched away.
Chimagozielam was at Maguerite’s when Helen, their friend, told her about her birthday. “You know, we could celebrate it,” Helen said. Maguerite threw her hands up. “Yes, Helen, been thinking about that a lot, too.” Maguerite resumed to straightening Chimagozielam’s hair. “March is here, and we could do it for, you know, why people do it, with loved ones and all that.” Chimagozielam stopped Maguerite from completing her hair. Nobody does it like Nabeolisa, she thought.
Chimagozielam told the magician about the idea of a birthday. “Nice,” the magician said. “You think about inviting Nabeolisa?”
Chimagozielam wanted her mother to be there. On her thirtieth birthday. She wanted her friends to say she was her mother’s child. That they resembled. That they looked like sisters. The thought of not going to her mother’s funeral troubled her. She sat motionless on the bed, and cried. Then she wrote an email to Nabeolisa.
Your novel going fine? I’m turning thirty. Maggy and Helen thought I should celebrate it. They also thought I should invite my loved ones. You think you can come?
Nabeolisa was finishing her short story, From Tonight, A Woman, when the email popped in below the laptop’s screen. She read the message thrice, rolling in her head the insinuation of Chimagozielam saying she loved her. The message got less intense on the fourth reading. Maybe even Chimagozielam hadn’t meant the insinuation? Judy came in and asked what happened.
Nabeolisa shifted her stool. “Nothing.”
Judy pressed on.
“Chi-chi is celebrating her birthday,” Nabeolisa said.
Judy chuckled. “So go.”
“I don’t have to. She has those friends with her already, who also can do her hair. She wouldn’t see me even if I went?”
Judy stood behind Nabeolisa and squeezed her shoulder. “You’re fucking in love, Nabeo.”
“No, I dunno again, really.”
“How many months now?” Judy pursed her lips. “Just tell her already. Be mad about it. When is the birthday?”
Two weeks later, Nabeolisa turned in front of her full-length mirror and complained about the tightness of her leggings, the dullness of the overcoat, and the fatness of her face. “My face looks like an owl’s. I generally look unpleasant, Judy.”
Judy picked a ballgown from the wardrobe’s railing and spread it on the bed. “This?”
“My God, Judy. This is not a wedding. I want it classy but not too much, Judy. I don’t want to look like a reddish pumpkin.”
Judy searched through the wardrobe as Nabeolisa turned in front of the mirror. Maybe her neck was too long; what’s with the fat of her stomach; her lashes were not done well. Would stilettos look glamorous, or ankle boots too distant? Should her hair fall on the shoulders, be a bun, or braids, or chignon? Was her forehead protruded—they certainly are? Was her mouth large? What’s with the curve of her ears?
“Hello,” Nabeolisa said and presented her gift to Chimagozielam. They smiled.
“Thank you, babe,” Chimagozielam hugged Nabeolisa. Hearing Chimagozielam call her babe made Nabeolisa want to straighten an invisible crease on her dress.
“The crucifix,” she said. “You kept it?”
Chimagozielam blushed. “You gave me. And it—”she brought the brass crucifix from her purse and turned it on her palm, “Makes me feel…what can I say? Loved? Like someone is watching me. Loving me.”
Later, Nabeolisa stood by the venetian blinds and watched Chimagozielam chat with her friends. The living room filled with people. Chattering. Phone calls. Black and white people pressed against each other. Nabeolisa watched Chimagozielam laugh, blush, and tease, complete. She felt shut out of her life. She’d always been, she thought. The feeling that they’d shared something original, like love, was illusory. Chimagozielam was just one familiar with kindness. Why, eight months after Nabeolisa had driven off her compound, tears pooling in her eyes, Chimagozielam could evoke an unpretentiousness with her.
Somebody rang the champagne flute with a metal spoon. They cut the cake. Nabeolisa waited by the shutters, watching them, looking out, her feet sweaty, her toes squished in the wedge shoes. Chimagozielam called her to join them. No, she thought, and nodded. She instead held her iPhone straight and photographed them. She wanted to leave the place. Just leave. Music played from the hi-fi system. The speakers blared. Bodies pressed against each other. Sweating, dancing. Nabeolisa wedged the bodies aside as she tried to get out. A hand pulled her. Chimagozielam’s.
“You want to dance?” Chimagozielam asked, pulling her back towards her friends. They danced. Chimagozielam squeezed Nabeolisa’s hands. “Cold, uh?” She asked.
Looking straight into her eyes, Nabeolisa stuttered. “Yeah, yeah, can be cold sometimes.”
Chimagozielam laughed and flipped Nabeolisa around. Nabeolisa spun, her skirt a brief globule. She landed in Chimagozielam’s arms. She rolled away, laughing.
“That’s a badass double entendre, babe,” Chimagozielam said. Nabeolisa did not hear.
They took shots of liquor that made their head float. Nabeolisa put off her wedge shoes. Chimagozielam’s head lolled backwards. There and then, Nabeolisa felt it right to tell Chimagozielam how she felt. They were there now, weren’t they? Weren’t they happy together?
“I love you,” Nabeolisa said. Chimagozielam shouted an “I love you too” back.
Nabeolisa, emboldened by the reception of her first profession, shouted in return. “I love you, Chi-Chi. I want to spend my life with you. In your arms.” Nabeolisa’s eyes swam, sobriety filling in. She hated herself the moment Chimagozielam’s eyes turned sour. Nabeolisa stopped shaking, head slightly tilted forward, ready. She wanted to cry. She wasn’t supposed to love Chimagozielam when they were high, and happy. It was supposed to be a private affair. Two lives at a precipice, holding their breaths. Not this way. Not this loudly and commonly. Now, it has happened. Discovered so rudely to light. This excavation. And she couldn’t reverse it. She couldn’t feel her hands still on Chimagozielam’s waist.
Nabeolisa watched Chimagozielam’s confusion in silence. Their ambivalence. She wanted to be able to interfere. But this was Chimagozielam’s battle. Their cross. Her crucifix. She couldn’t interfere. Nabeolisa watched how small and glossy Chimagozielam’s lips were. If she could kiss it. Bring her hands to Chimagozielam’s nether regions. Chimagozielam could need Nabeolisa’s approval. Nabeolisa’s effrontery. Nabeolisa leaned in, certain this must be what Chimagozielam wanted. A kiss. A feeling. A spark that everything could be glorious like this. Perfect as this. Chimagozielam avoided the kiss, her head turned.
“I am a spirit,” Chimagozielam told Nabeolisa. “I cannot feel anything. I don’t own this body.”
Nabeolisa still held on to Chimagozielam’s hands, tears streaming from her eyes, a hotness spreading through them. She imagined the crucifix in Chimagozielam’s purse, the nexus of Nabeolisa’s amorousness. Cold, it’d be, but a sign that glory could still be attainable. Nabeolisa could teach Chimagozielam how to love, and be wanted.
“Let me in,” Nabeolisa told her and squeezed her hand as though for some miracle. Nabeolisa leaned in to kiss Chimagozielam again. Certain of this grace. The excavation. Chimagozielam pushed Nabeolisa away. Nabeolisa floated for fifteen seconds before hitting the recliner. And the world halted. The chandelier, the mural on the wall, the racketeering of music, the tapering of feet on the floorboards, the clinks and sweatiness, a chomping silence. Everything stopped for ten seconds for Nabeolisa to collect her debris.
“Just fucking leave me alone, Nabeolisa,” Chimagozielam screamed. They were both crying. “And fucking get out of my life.”
Chimagozielam crumpled to her knees, muttering, “Just leave me. Leave me, please. I’ll only hurt you, Nabeolisa…”
Nabeolisa crawled to Chimagozielam and held her in her arms, breathing in her oiled hair, quieting her. The miracle needed.
19, a White man, a Rtd. Nigerian, writes from Osun State, Nigeria. He studies Literature in English at Obafemi Awolowo University. He writes for Literature Voices Journal, Nigeria, and is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Nigeria Review. He is a fellow of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency, winner, 2022 HIASFEST Star Prize; Pengician Chapbook Prize, 2021; Chima Ugokwe Prize for essay, 2021. He is a Correspondent at Yedote Journal. Has works appear in Asterlit mag, Poetica Review, Sterling Notes, Institutes of African Studies, Nsukka, The Shallow Tales Review, and elsewhere. He is working on his debut novel. Reach him: adepojuisaiahgbenga.