When Inipi said, between heavy silences, that she did not want her child to be a girl, Miss Ude shook her head and insisted that she must not think of the baby in terms of gender or skin colour or ethnicity, that there was more to this child than eyes could see. She knew the child was genderless, able to take whatever form it pleased. She did not tell the mother all the things she saw. That it would have its father’s gait, its mother’s eyes, a delicate heart and hands that would mend people. That a time would come when she would need to let go of the child in its childhood; that when that time came, she would need strength.
Restless, her eyes roamed from her scanty table to the pregnant girl in the seat across from her to the ring that lay on the table, and to the bottles of water that she kept always to relieve her of the thirst that hit her as hard as her curiosity, drier every time. A seer’s curse. Something like the men who never stayed, not even the one she thought had accepted her wholesome. They had made love wide-eyed with lit candles, incense, and a song that came to her. Catching her breath between sighs, she had sung along, aloud for serendipity.
He called it spiritual, called her spiritual, said he wanted nothing less and nothing more. Only to turn around and call her an emotionless bitch from anger stored up for years, rumbling until it cracked its container and burst out in thick spurts. Insisted that she cared nothing for him, showed nothing of what she felt. He’d wanted her to ask him to stay. To say two words that would mend things or cover the blemishes of a worn-out love that needed reassurance indeed – please, stay – but she hadn’t. She believed commitment was a decision to be made solitarily and, above all, without coercion.
Now he came and went as he pleased, neither owning nor deserting her. They’d settled to finding solace in desire and the temporariness of their belonging. And she was happy when he came, happy for her, happy for the children who stopped asking, daddy who, daddy this, daddy which, and resorted to daddy that still came and left. And when he came, their mama smiled and cooked things they hadn’t eaten in months and they slept comfortably underneath rolling fans, for daddy that still came and left would take his time to suck through the hose fuel for the generator, that they might sleep comfortably. He did it for them and for himself, more for himself in fact, but who cared?
Inipi ruminated upon the strangeness of things as she watched Miss Ude’s eyes move. She was there now, hearing things about her unborn child from this woman they called MBGN, not as an allusion to her beauty but as a mockery of its nonexistence, of her tired look and old weave that she scratched and scratched while she taught, of her tall build and long legs that she threw carelessly with feet tucked into worn out heels – a model’s build gone to waste – her big bulging tired eyes and her riotous sense of style. MBGN. Rumour had it that she had three children fathered by three different men, some whose names she could not remember. Rumour had it that she had contracted the nasty HIV.
There was a fear that formed a lump in Inipi’s throat when Miss Ude first called her to her office. It was the manner in which she held the young girl’s hands in hers, drew her eyes down one after the other, touched her cheeks, looked into her eyes and said, Inipi, you’re pregnant. Inipi knew the story she would tell long before anybody began to ask questions. About how a stranger had forced himself on her beside the Yoruba shop at night while she was out on an errand. It was a slight variation of Ibikunmi’s story. They had been neighbours since birth, best friends until Ibikunmi had withdrawn and yielded to the yearnings of solitude. She would give nothing to a world that returned nothing to her.
And her loose screws were theatrical. Once, Ibikunmi had lunged at a man from the other school, dug her teeth into his shoulder until her mouth was bloodied with brethren blood. He screamed mercy, screamed Jesus. Because his face was marked with scars that resembled the ones on the face of the man who took her forcefully. She had dug her hands into his eyes, grappled with his face, felt his skin so hard she knew the scars by shape, reimagined them by day on various faces and this man’s face suited the description. She stopped abruptly and straightened up when she realised that his smell was different from the rapist’s smell. He smelled of sweat, desperation and prayers. The rapist had smelled of sweet perfume so thick it got caught up in her throat and travelled upwards until she tasted it at the tip of her tongue.
I am sorry, she said, you reminded me of someone I know. What the fuck? exclaimed the man from the other school. He pointed his bible at her, I bind you in the name of Jesus. And they had stayed there for hours, calling evil things like obsession by name and removing them from the girl’s life. Soon they were laughing and crying, their bibles turned away from Ibikunmi and upon their own selves as though all needed deliverance but her. She lay in their circle on the floor, eyes closed from exhaustion, but relieved that the principal would hear nothing of her sins, that the resolution of things that happened in the school fellowship were dealt with spiritually.
Inipi’s friendship with Ibikunmi had deteriorated until it hung on old grey jeans. She owned none of her own, wore frilly skirts that hung below her knees, big blouses and hats. But on occasion, borrowed these jeans. They were Ibikunmi’s mother’s old pair but Inipi loved how they clung to her waist perfectly, despite their fade. She would tie her big hair with a shoelace until it formed a glorious afro puff that rested like a jet black halo over her head, wear one of her favourite t-shirts and be content with how it held down her folds and showed her as a beautiful woman. She never wore them from home, so that talking walls might not carry the news of a trouser-wearing daughter to a holy mother. She found a restaurant with a bathroom where she could change, and left her younger brother at a friend’s house. He had come twelve years after her. They had called him Samuel, for they asked him of the Lord, had not his time, but spoiled him silly.
Inipi had asked once why she had to always bring the jeans back. They belong to my mummy, Ibikunmi had said. But your mummy doesn’t wear them anymore. It was only these jeans that kept Inipi returning for there were days that Ibikunmi would leave her knocking for minutes before she told her to go back home, she didn’t want to see anyone. But she would sometimes let her in and they would laugh like it was old times or talk about serious things.
It was one of these times that Ibikunmi told Inipi about the faceless man, how she fought tirelessly, how she pressed his eyes in so deep that she felt eye juice on her thumbs. It was one of these times also, that Inipi told Ibikunmi about how her mother looked at her with fat girl’s pity: Who would ever love this one? Who would ever want this one? Her own mother, she had explained. Ibikunmi had thought that perhaps Inipi expected too much of her mother. How do you see your own self? She had asked. That’s what matters. With fat girl’s pity or what? If you ask me, I’d say fat girl’s pity. You are, after all, a fat girl.
Although it had been the truth, Inipi had thought it too harsh, had thought Ibikunmi obnoxious, selfish and heartless, hadn’t understood the magnitude of her suffering until she watched events with the man from the other school unfold before her very eyes and decided to be there for this girl who had carried a burden too heavy for her to bear. Inipi understood then that she would keep going back with the jeans. Henceforth, she would go for comfort, she would go for friendship. So she stayed for a while, feigned interest in the rest of the conversation and then got up to leave with the jeans. There would be other days for healing and reconciliation, but that day was for the school party.
She had stopped to change in Sweet Sensation’s toilet. Ibikunmi with her driver’s permit had driven down. There had been conservative dancing. An unsure bopping of heads as though they danced with questions hanging above them. Questions that asked should I or should I not? There had been the boy. He had a mic in his hand and a brilliant head on his shoulders. He had moved through the crowd easing tensions, suggesting that they move more than just their heads, that they hold the waist of the girl in front of them if she agreed. They did. The party became wild with dance. And the boy that Inipi would kiss for the first time that night. The kiss would be meaningless, a kiss that meant nothing but a kiss. The reason was nothing and the evolution of this kiss existed only in her head.
It was on a field with sparse patches of withered grass and large patches of dry sand surrounded by magnificent red gates with bars like prison. Big bouncers in front of the entrance of the gates for their protection, two or three of them. Boys from a rival school tried to enter into the party for the revenge that must be taken upon a school which they believed had bribed the referees of three football matches. A bunch of spoiled brats, to whom the tournament had meant little or nothing.
Dusk had settled, but the party had not. Most were oblivious of what was going on outside, of the angry boys who were now bathing their heads in vodka, jumping the gates and hitting the bouncers’ heads with sticks into concussions. Ibikunmi had left long before the party hit full gear. Inipi had already sensed the danger coming even before it arrived, for this was how her instincts worked. She ran to the opposite gate and climbed over, sticking her leg from steel bar to steel bar until she landed carelessly on the outer ground, panting heavily. Fat girls don’t run, fat girls don’t scale, she reminded herself as she dropped. Limping, she walked down to her boyfriend’s house, quarter eager to tell him how the party had gone, half eager to show him how womanly she looked, quarter eager to have him hold her.
Inipi thought that the joys of being with a man were bounteous. He had opened her up in ways she thought she would never know, like the tingles that travelled the tip of her toes to her thighs that vibrated while his head was between them, how he traced her folds with his fingers as though they were something light and precious, made her into poetry with his words erasing her mother’s words that said that she must learn to control the lusts of her flesh. There is nothing here to control, mama. Although, mama had been talking about her eating habits but here she was exploring other things, other lusts. Sorry, mama. She began to look at her friends, all of them, as small children who knew nothing, because he told her things, gave her books to read, told her about Basquiat, Pablo Picasso, and Frida Kahlo, and they discussed these things. It was overwhelming sometimes, because his knowledge was afar from hers, but he made her feel grown up, made her feel like she could make decisions and take charge of the direction in which her life went all by herself.
With him, her body was a temple of adoration and, sometimes, debasement, like when her man got wild with passion and wanted to stick it in everywhere including her butthole; that was pain that she could not share with a holy mother. She could tell her mother that she had a headache and her mother would provide painkillers but if she told her mother about the pain she felt in between her butt cheeks, what then would she say when her mother asked her how or why? There were things a daughter must not tell any mother. She laughed at these thoughts. At the insanity in even thinking about how not to tell a mother who did not even let her wear jeans about such dirty things. She laughed again.
There, at his apartment, she told him the story of the party, down to the littlest of details, like the boy she had planned to kiss in her head, trying his jealousy. You are free to be, you are free to become, he had said, sensing her trick and disappointing her. Sometimes, she wanted to be owned completely by this man and, indeed, he had once been a man of acute ownership and jealousy until the love of his life, his before-woman, had plotted her departure by placing their numerous differences between them as a shield from his love. She had wanted to run away from this love that clipped wings, wanted freedom for herself and freedom to bask in the idiosyncrasies that made her who she was but this, his love, hadn’t let her and that was the only way he had known to love a woman so he found himself helpless before the situation. He watched her act out her departure even before she left, he could do nothing to keep her. This was years ago. Now, he had decided that it was needless to try to hold something down, nothing in this life was truly yours, he reminded himself, and he preferred younger girls, thought them more loveable, hence Inipi, who was sixteen but had the body of a madam.
Rilwan, let’s do it, Inipi said. Not as an instantaneous desire but as a build-up of desires from their beginning, a final insistence of her wanting. I thought we decided to wait till you turned eighteen, said Rilwan. I know, but I could have died today, I can die anytime and I want to know you that way before I die. Rilwan laughed. Inipi, you are being dramatic and remember how we said we were not going to do it in this dump of mine. But I want to do it, I really want to. She would feign total trust in her decision, crawl up the bed as though she was entirely sure that this was all that she wanted, all she had wanted for the six months she had known him, as if her indecision had no home here, in this room. And he moved to her, sceptical at first, asking her every step of the way if she was sure that this was what she wanted, as if all he needed was for her to say no, as if he was unafraid to break hymens and spill virgin blood. But that day, for the first time, he had. She had been there with them, Rilwan’s before-woman. She had been there amidst the ruffled sheets. She was there on his mind. I miss her every day, he had once told Inipi in a moment of complete openness. Then in the next moment, ashamed of his vulnerability, denied the depth of his statement and said that it was not literal. But there the before-woman was with them. Why was she there with them?
Inipi thought about offering to cook them both something to eat. Food was how she found solace because a sudden sadness had hit her along with the slight pain between her legs. Chocolate would snap anyone out of the deepest throes of sadness without permission. Puff puff glazed with butter icing, crepes dipped in ketchup and mayonnaise, pancakes with evaporated milk as syrup, anything tasty, anything sweet, French toast with Nutella or jam and stewed eggs at the side. This was how she thought of food, how she experimented with taste. But he said that he was not hungry, that he was not hungry, and she took the purse she carried and left.
She stopped to change from the jeans in Sweet Sensation’s toilet and got home with a cloud of melancholia hanging above her head. She knocked on Ibikunmi’s door, and returned the jeans and told her about the ruckus at the party, and then about her sadness. When Ibikunmi asked why, she told her what she had done and how she had done it. She told her how they had been three, how the before-woman had stayed with them til the end. Ibikunmi laughed as if to say, you? Someone wanted you?
Miss Ude searched the girl for truth. She had already seen the father, lanky, skinny, hands with fingers long, an artist’s hands, like the baby’s, like the younger man she had once loved. She had seen them both, whims of cloudy vision rocking back and forth on the sheets. She saw an undefined thing. She saw conception of the child and the lie even before she told it because she knew the truth. She had seen a copulation between three people instead of two. The third person, her, herself, a silhouette, there, with them. Who is the father? She asked.
A faceless man, Inipi replied, and told her the story the way she had practised in front of her bathroom mirror, trying to imitate the cold face Ibikunmi had when she first told her. Miss Ude touched her shoulder tenderly and told her that all would be well. When Miss Ude asked if her mother knew, Inipi assumed an air of nonchalance, slouching her shoulders and almost rolling her eyes but stopping herself because it would have been too much effort, unproductive to the act. My mother does not know, I am scared to tell her, please help me.
She did more than help. Inipi’s mother stared blankly when she was told. She didn’t know what to do or say, ran through her mind for things she could tell a defiled daughter, how to comfort her, how to chastise her, how to hold her. Nothing came. So she stayed there, blank and helpless. Wishing her husband was there to take action on her behalf.
Miss Ude hadn’t discussed the baby as though it was something from an ugly experience; they had discussed it together and planned its future as though it was something hopeful. Miss Ude expressed her interest in keeping the baby. It was the things she had seen about the baby that made her want it. It belonged to a man she once loved, who had once loved her too, but pushed her away with his jealousy. She expressed her interest as an extension of her interest in Inipi, a pretence that Inipi saw right through. But they both knew that she would nurture this special child, teach it to hold its own and protect its space, teach it strength in the presence of tribulation. She had nothing but hope and dreams for the child; it reminded her of her once beautiful days, before the weight of the world broke her to pieces. She kept the child to remind her of the person she had once been.
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