Welcome by Akwaeke Emezi

By bobby on January 19, 2015 in

Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo/Tamil writer and video artist based in liminal spaces. Born in Umuahia and raised in Aba, Nigeria, Akwaeke holds two degrees, including an MPA from New York University. The Miles Morland Foundation recently awarded her a 2015 Morland Writing Scholarship for her second novel The Death of Vivek Oji, currently in progress. Her debut novel, Freshwater, is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic in the winter of 2018.

The light was gone, sucked back into the black wires that hung off the roof and stretched across the expressway, leaving the kitchen a study in blurs. Ogugua popped open the plastic crate of eggs and felt around for the matches, his pupils widening to inhale the grey air. It was so much quieter here in Owerri than it had been in Lagos. In the sky outside his glass doors, when he looked, he could see the moon hanging low and round, steeped in urine.

The match hissed and exploded into fire once Ogugua touched it to the leaking gas of the stove and he capped it with his frying pan, the one with the loose screw in the handle that he was always tightening with a butter knife. He couldn’t help comparing everything now to everything that used to be. Even the eggs here were different from the ones in America, where he used to call home, where the woman who used to be his wife still lived. Those yolks had been pale, smelling of a thick rottenness that made him peel them out and eat only the gelatinous white. But here, when he cracked them open, the eggs spilled out pools of fat yellow blood that sizzled with volume. Ogugua lifted the frying pan and touched a candle to the stove’s fire, setting it on the counter in a pool of its own wax.

He had arrived in Lagos with his daughter in early July, when the rains were still determined and flooding. During the flight, he fed her small spoonfuls of his airplane dessert, a piped thick cream with reduced fruit spilling over and staining the top. She batted her hands at the spoon and chuckled in his lap and sweetness smacked through her lips. Ogugua kissed the top of her head.

‘Obianuju,’ he sang into her ear, ‘my little Uju-bebi. Omalicha nwa. Daddy loves you, yes, he does.’ When he tickled her, she laughed from deep inside her throat and it made his heart swell. It was her first time in Nigeria and it was just the two of them — his wife Janet couldn’t get enough time off work and he had assured her that it would be a quick trip, that they would be right back. Uju was almost two and his family in Lagos had been complaining that they still hadn’t met the baby or that American wife of his, so Ogugua finally agreed to bring at least one of them. As the plane started circling for landing, he found himself wishing that his parents hadn’t died when they did, so they could have seen their grandchild, their only son’s child. Swallowing hard, he buried his face in Uju’s skin and the sweetness of her neck cut the pain a bit. When they got off the plane in Lagos, the sun was masked in slow fog and as they drove through Victoria Island to his sister Florence’s house, everyone was wading through the streets with rubber slippers, dirty water lapping at their knees as the rain fell steadily.

His girlfriend Munachi came in three days later.

Ogugua had spent those days with his family as they spoiled and fussed over Uju. Florence had cried when she saw the baby, clutching her to her chest as the cousins flocked around, cooing and sighing.

‘I wish Mama was here,’ Florence told him, her eyes damp.

‘I know,’ he answered, his hand on the baby’s soft hair. ‘Me too.’ He watched his daughter get lifted through a forest of loving hands, blood-linked faces bending and smiling over her.

When Munachi arrived, the first mistake he made was that he let her come to Florence’s house. From the minute his sister saw her, sharpness entered Florence’s eyes and she pulled Ogugua aside.

‘Who’s that girl?’ she asked.

‘She’s a friend who’s in town,’ he replied. ‘What’s your own?’

Florence gave him a look. ‘Really? Does Janet know her?’

Ogugua started to get angry. ‘Better respect yourself,’ he warned. He was the first born, the only son, and Florence was just his junior sister. ‘Is it me you’re asking these questions?’

He stared at her until she looked away and raised her hands. ‘Okay o. Go and enjoy with your friend.’

Ogugua hissed dismissal. ‘Where’s my daughter?’ he asked. ‘She’s coming with us.’

This outraged Florence, but she bit her tongue and soon Uju was babbling in Munachi’s arms, clearly familiar with the girl. Florence watched them leave with disapproval leaking from her face, yet her brother didn’t even look at her. He took Munachi to the guesthouse in Ikoyi where she was staying, where the bed was wide enough for four people. The mattress was firm and resisted rippling, so Uju slept undisturbed and untouched while Ogugua fucked Munachi beside her.

When Janet called, Ogugua put her on speakerphone and Munachi went into the bathroom, ignoring the voices babbling off the walls as Janet chattered to her child. After the call, Munachi came back and sat next to Ogugua, a faded wrapper tied over her breasts.

‘What are we going to do when Uju starts talking?’ she teased him. ‘She’s going to mention me one day.’

‘We’ll just have to be more careful,’ he answered, and kissed her.

They drove around Lagos and Munachi sat in the stretch of the back seat with Uju, filling her sketchbook with pudgy arms and legs, with a partial smile chewing around a roasted corncob. She built charcoal toddlers that walked off her fingers and clutched her skirt. People kept thinking that Uju was her child — they had the same complexion, the same large eyes and big smiles. Sometimes Ogugua corrected them and other times he didn’t. He watched Uju grow three shades browner, with glowing gold undertones. He watched Munachi hoist the baby up on her narrow hip, watched the baby pull at his girlfriend’s braids, watched them both laugh at him with gorgeous open mouths.

Afterwards, after it happened, after the world broke, Munachi left without packing, straight from the hospital, carrying the leather backpack that held her sketchbook with her good arm. Ogugua had bought that bag for her at Mushin and the shoemaker at his gate had reinforced it with strong thick thread. She left him a voice note on Whatsapp and when he played it, it said something about inevitable conclusions, mostly that she was not going to wait for him to hate her with the kind of force she knew he had boiling in him. She was probably right, except that Ogugua hadn’t reached the stage of hating anyone else yet — he was still on himself. Uju’s diaper bag was still in Munachi’s bathroom at the guesthouse and Ogugua’s suitcase was still at Florence’s house. He hadn’t been back to either of those places and he didn’t plan on it.

So now he was in Owerri and now he had this childhood kitchen where he kept bread on top of the fridge in a black polythene bag. Ogugua tapped an egg on the edge of the frying pan and it radiated faults.

Before the world broke, Uju had eyes like white oil, a mouth like cramped petals, and fat legs. Munachi was holding her in the back seat, clapping her little feet together, her chin nestled in the gentle cloud of baby hair. When the lorry’s brakes gave out, Ogugua glimpsed the bulk of it careening wildly towards them from the corner of his eye and he twisted his steering wheel in a useless reflex. Everything webbed into blunt pieces and Munachi screamed. Those sounds kept following him now, weeks later, even when he tried to ignore them. The crunch of an eggshell as he stuffed it into the overflowing rubbish bin was the crack of an arm.

His breath had been scattered since the accident, as if his lungs saw no point in exertion, not after the weight of Uju’s head had lolled against his chest, heavy and inert as he ran into the hospital. The first nurses asked about seatbelts as they busied their hands on her body, but he had nothing to give them. What was there to say with this mouth? That he only insisted on belts and car seats in America, where the cars passed safety inspections and pulled past each other smoothly, but that here, where the motorcycles bent madly through the traffic, where cars died in their lanes and buses tanked nose-first into gaping potholes, this was the place where he had decided it was fine if the seatbelt was off? That he had allowed his child to sprawl on his backseat freely, unrestrained, his second mistake, as if it was a playpen? No, there was nothing to say. So he remained silent as they took Uju, as they led Munachi away, his girlfriend cradling her arm like it was redeemable glass.

Ogugua had been lucky, only a cut to his head, mild whiplash to his neck, a ringing headache that they said was nothing, some bruising. They let him hold Uju again when they were finished. The doctor was explaining something about internal injuries but his baby just looked asleep, the colourful plastic bubbles in her hair catching the light against their seams. Her skin was grey, so far away from her alive golden brown. He looked down at her eyelashes, delicate blackness against the fullness of her cheek, and then he rested his hand on the marble of her chest, just to make sure. The doctor was still talking when Ogugua covered Uju’s face again with the white cloth they had brought her to him in and handed her back, then turned and walked out of the hospital. The staff let him go, seeing the grief steaming off him, but they thought he would come back. Janet had thought the same thing — that he would return with their daughter.

‘Bring my baby back,’ she had told him before he entered the taxi for the airport, fear thick like tar in her voice. She had never been to Nigeria. She was American, thirty-seven, and their daughter was her only child. Ogugua had loved her and married her, bought a house and had a baby with her.

He met Munachi at a film screening where she was standing behind a pillar to hide from the crowd, charcoal smudged on her fingers as she sketched them. He even told Janet about her that night, before the affair started; nothing much, just that he’d met this amazing artist who was also Nigerian, who did beautiful things with bodies on paper. They were putting the baby down and Janet had smiled at him. ‘That’s nice,’ she said. ‘We should buy some of her work. It’s good to support young artists.’

After the accident, when Ogugua called Janet from outside the hospital, he lied about the seat belt and told her that Uju had been sitting in Florence’s lap, locked in. He told her what the doctors had said, about the injuries, about everything they’d tried.

‘Baby, I’m so sorry,’ he said. ‘Oh God, I’m so sorry. We lost her.’

Janet had made a low tearing sound that seared through the connection and sliced into him.

‘Please,’ he whispered, ‘forgive me,’ but she cut the line. When he tried back, she didn’t pick up until the fourth time and even then he couldn’t hear any words, just harsh wild weeping. He called her mother in Canarsie and told her about the accident.

‘Mom, you have to get to Janet,’ he added. ‘Right now, please, I don’t know what she’s going to do. You have to get to her.’

His mother-in-law had slipped straight into rage. ‘How could you let this happen? I told Janet not to let you take her, she should never have let you take her!’

‘Mom, please —’ He was crying when she hung up on him.

The light was still gone when Ogugua slid his eggs from the pan to a scratched plate edged in blue flowers. He sat washed in candlelight, with his face in his hands, a thick slice of bread made yellow with margarine sitting next to the eggs. He kept making meals even though he’d barely eaten in weeks, not when he was in Lagos, not here in Owerri. He felt hollowed out, exactly how he wanted. After the accident, he’d booked a hotel room so he wouldn’t have to face the family or any reminders — those were the worst part, the weeds of memory pushing up to torment him.

Like the car, like the unopened packet of multi-coloured bendy straws he found afterwards under the passenger seat, the one that he’d picked up at Shoprite, so that Uju could drink Ribena from the carton that was too big for her mouth. He’d been looking through the car at the mechanic shop by a petrol station when he found the straws, and he’d sat heavily inside the buckled door, holding a handful of rainbow plastic as fumes and madness roared around his head. It was never going to stop. The day after he got to Owerri, while shaving, he remembered her eyes and his hand trembled, the razor breaking his skin. He stood in front of his reflection as thin red trickled down his throat, his pulse a limping footstep. It was never going to stop.

Ogugua wanted to run some more, to follow his child’s body back to America, where her mother had insisted she be buried, no matter how much it cost. Janet had been asking him, over and over, how quickly he could book a flight back so they could be together, so they could grieve together. The arrangements took time — there were officials to bribe and some of his family was arguing that Uju should be buried in Nigeria. He overruled them and sent his daughter home. The day before his own flight, Janet called him.

‘I know,’ she said, as soon as he picked up. Her voice was different.

‘You know what?’

‘Florence told me, Ogugua. I know who you were with when the accident happened.’

His heart cramped. He was going to lose her. He could hear it.

‘No, Janet, let me explain —’

‘You don’t need to,’ she interrupted, her words brittle. ‘I don’t want to hear a single word that comes out of your mouth.’

‘Please, Janet, I’m coming home tomorrow.’ His fingers sweated against the glass of the phone. ‘We can talk then. Please baby, I can —’

‘I’m just calling to tell you — don’t ever come back here. I don’t want to see your face ever again. Ogugua, I swear to God, I’ll sue you to hell and back if you set foot in this country. Stay there with that bitch and let me bury my child.’

The line cut off like a dropped blade and Ogugua felt his chest die all over again. He bent in half and fought for air, pressing his phone to his forehead as panic shook him. He tried calling her again and again and each time, her phone wouldn’t even ring. After the eleventh try, he called Florence. She didn’t pick up either. Ogugua left the hotel and took a taxi to the airport. He moved like a missing person, buying a ticket to Owerri and then calling a Brooklyn number while waiting to board.

Munachi picked up. ‘What do you want?’
‘You haven’t called me,’ he said.
‘I know. That was on purpose.’
‘How is your arm?’

Munachi inhaled sharply and he imagined her shifting her weight to one foot, her hip sliding out. ‘We don’t have to do this, Ogugua.’

‘Don’t you care?’ he asked, his voice fault-lining all over the place. ‘You left immediately, you never called, you just left me like that. You’re behaving as if you don’t even care.’ He wanted to tell her that Janet knew, that everything was gone, that he needed her for one last bit of truth, something to keep him alive.

Munachi’s tone softened. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘I can’t go through this with you.’

‘Uju died, Munachi.’ His voice shattered. ‘She died —’

‘Stop it, Ogugua! Just stop it! Do this with your wife. I don’t want to talk about it.’ She paused, and he knew she was about to hang up. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and then she did.

Ogugua held his phone tight, like it was her hand, and boarded his flight. He was in Owerri in forty-five minutes and then he took an overpriced taxi to the house he’d grown up in. The steward was shocked to see him and Ogugua almost laughed. Where else would he go? Where else would have him? Here, in this house, everything seemed as if it had been paused for him. The family albums were still under the glass of the coffee table with fine dust settled on them; the sofas still had cream doilies, once white, spread out for heads to rest on. He sent the steward to buy some food and then sent him away completely, promising that he would still be paid. That was five days ago. He hadn’t left the house yet; even the neighbours hadn’t seen him, the old couple that had lived there for as long as he could remember.

Alone, Ogugua pushed the fried eggs and thick bread off his plate and then knotted the bag of rubbish to take it outside. The electricity crackled and returned as he stepped into the backyard and through the scrolled metal of the fence, he saw the neighbour’s wife standing under the moon, wearing a funeral T-shirt and a patterned wrapper around her old hips.

‘Good evening, Ma,’ he greeted. She turned her head to him, her grey hair cornrowed.

‘Ehn, my son. You are back?’
‘Yes, Ma.’

She spat thoughtfully onto the ground. ‘It is well. How is the family?’

He let the bag drop from his hand, his throat dry.
‘They…they are well, Ma.’

‘We thank God.’ She paused and looked off into the air.

‘They will be joining you?’ she asked.

‘Yes, Ma.’ His voice was starting to fracture. She continued looking at nothing. He could hear the resumed whine of his refrigerator from inside the house, seeping out of the open back door.

‘It is good to have the children around. Come and visit us when they arrive.’ Her eyes focused and swung back to him, milked in the dark.

‘Welcome,’ she said.

Ogugua stood unmoving as she walked slowly into her house. For a moment, he could almost hear Uju running up behind him, tiny feet pattering on the sand. He closed his eyes, listening as the yellow moon shone down on him, and he was alone.

 —

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