The first time I mentioned to Paul, my close friend, that I had just been pulled over by the police, he cocked his head to the left as though to say I was guilty of a felony. I was connected with him via skype, so I worried that he perhaps did not grasp the triviality of the incident, considering he was not aware of the culture of “my” country. When I tried to explain that all that happened was a bad left rear light, he cocked his head again, and then opened his mouth to speak: “You drive?” I drive. But I shouldn’t. I should have waited till I turned twenty-five, or until I got married, whichever came first. Better yet, my boyfriend should have taught me, or my fiance, or ultimately, my husband.
My sister, whose life seemed just perfect, is married and has kids: sons. She was — or seemed — perfect because she married at twenty-three, remained happily married years after, and lived in the United States with her family. Years ago, as a student, I’d occasionally vacation at my sister’s during the long summer breaks. Being with her felt refreshing and blissful — that sort of feeling one has after completing an arduous task. Even when my sister criticized my cooking, or undermined my cleaning, I’d persevere. “What will you do in your husband’s house?” She would ask so many times that I lost count of.
At some point, I was expected to be at my sister’s at all vacations — spring, summer, winter. Whenever I hesitated to do that, to be there, my sister would make me understand why I needed to be with her. “A young woman shouldn’t be on her own,” she’d say, “not for that long. So come and stay with me before school starts.”
I longed for the summer breaks; it provided an avenue for meditation, appreciation, and premeditated solitude. But I’d reluctantly agree to stay at my sister’s. And when I got there, I’d stand in front of the mirror examining and reexamining myself — especially on Sundays — before we left for church. I gazed at my eyes. My eyes, which would have become two dense pendulous balls, made me look much older. At five feet and ten inches, my uncanny appearance deluded people into ideating that I was under some form of attack, marital starvation and deprivation, spiritual warfare.
And the women at church — the African church we attended — would approach me after Sunday service to express pity. They would say that I remained the subject of their prayers, that I shouldn’t worry, because my “partner” was being “prepared” for me. They said “prepared” as though my “partner” was being roasted or grilled until golden brown, as in steak or goat meat.
I often nodded my head in agreement with them, and I also smiled in gratitude. I hoped I would not have to put up with the farce — the mockery — for long.
My back broke when I was approached on a bible study day — a Wednesday. Wednesdays were supposed to be casual in every way; questions and comments about my personal life were unsolicited. Not that they were solicited on Sundays, but I had learned to deal with them. The head of the choir approached me on a Wednesday: “A woman’s biological clock ticks fast as soon as she clocks twenty-five. So if you are not in any relationship now, we need to start praying. You are a woman who is growing older by the day”
“I am not twenty-five!” I yelled. Even if I was, what business of hers was it? And then I stormed out of the church prayer room where she’d sabotaged me. I went out to meet my sister who was setting little David on his car seat. Half sobbing, struggling to catch my breath, I explained to her: “That lady keeps meddling in my life. She needs to mind her own business and stop asking me about husband every time she sees me. Abi kilode?”
My sister’s response was a slap. She slapped me so hard across the face I felt weals disappear as quickly as they had appeared.
“She’s doing you a favor. Shut your mouth. Shut up your mouth!”
My body felt cold after that, so cold that my feet stayed glued to the ground beneath me. I struggled with the reality of the slap, and when I eventually took my place in the car, my sister was still talking. But at that point, her voice became distant — it sounded like it came from underneath layers of fieriness — and it came to me as echoes. They would stop by Panera Bread for lunch, and if I didn’t come, it’d be disrespectful. So I tagged along to Panera Bread and pretended like everything was fine. I pushed chunks of leaves down my throat, imagining it was salad.
That night, before I went to bed, I thought about my room in Nigeria — how the crickets would be chirping so loudly, and yet, I’d have slept so peacefully.
I vowed to never call Paul again — he was too shallow-minded. And my sister, she needed to apologize for yelling, for turning into someone I didn’t recognize, for treating me like I was a miserable feminist, for taking sides with an outsider while family suffered.
The Yoruba say when people like cricket depart from a place, they leave chaos in their wake.
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