I don’t know how it happened, but for a while I’ve been afraid of people. I think it might’ve had something to do with Aunty Mercy, who isn’t related to our family at all. Everyone knows she’s a witch, but when she stopped by our house before I left, I hugged her anyway. Soon after, the fear began to hit me like asthma and I couldn’t walk the streets without trembling. One would expect that type of fear from battered women or anorexics, but it happened to me. I should’ve been happy when school started, but instead I hovered around campus like a shadow as my former self drifted away.
But it’s been four months since then, and now I’m trying to come back from crazy. I’ve been searching for the dark splendor that was me before, but she’s very elusive. I didn’t even know I’d lost her until a weekend ago, when I drove home for fall break.
Something felt different as I pulled crookedly into my parents’ driveway. My youngest sister, Ugo, screamed when she heard my squeaky tires and ran from our covered porch to throw herself against me. I jumped out of the car and crushed her six-year-old frame against mine, and I threw her up in the air.
“You’re back,” she said. She grinned sheepishly, and I ran a hand over her fuzzy braids. But for some reason my stomach was spinning, and when I tried to smile down at her mahogany eyes, I couldn’t. Not now, I thought as my eyes shifted, not here. I dropped my trembling cheeks and looked away because I knew my sister was reading me, and I couldn’t risk losing one of the few that I had left. But Ugo squeezed my left hand anyway and told me to race after her into the house, and when I did there was a surprise party waiting for me in the kitchen.
“You’re back!” yelled a chorus of familiar faces, and there was that same sheepish grin all around. Amidst a flurry of African music and the scent of my favorite soup, I squeezed and kissed my brother and my other two sisters and I ran into my mother’s arms. My brother, Ike, took my bags, my sister, Chioma, set me a plate, and Nkechi started talking. But as they laughed and smiled over my return, I felt a familiar shame creep over my neck. I was in my own house, and my skin was burning under the attention of so many eyes. I steeled myself and smiled and answered questions and nodded and made remarks, and eventually the activity around me subsided and my siblings dispersed around the house.
“Chris called,” my mom said once we were alone. “He said he would come up in two hours to see you.”
I threw my palm to my face and feigned annoyance. Chris had loved me since the seventh grade, and in those days, I couldn’t stand his dreadlocks and ragged sweatpants. But as his voice deepened, his grooming habits improved, and before I knew it he was one of my best friends—he knew me better than my own father did.
“How was the drive?” my mom said. We both sat at the kitchen table, and she gestured to a coconut cake on the counter that I hadn’t seen.
“Good,” I chirped, slurping a spoonful of soup. “Thanks for the cake.”
“You’re welcome.” She crossed her arms and leaned onto the table. “I haven’t seen you in so long,” she said. “Have you been sleeping well? I know you’ve been studying a lot, but you look so far away.”
I dropped my gaze and nodded into my bowl of egusi soup while mumbling a response, because her dark eyes were searching me, and I wanted to pretend for as long as possible.
She sat with me as I ate and as she talked I began to relax. She reminded me of uncles and aunties—family friends—who’d wished me the best of luck while I was at school, and she rubbed my forehead and said my skin looked a lot better. I sighed and my stomach settled. I was home; I was safe. But then the front door swung open and heavy footsteps rang through the foyer as my father entered the household. Suddenly the whole house fell silent, as if a chill ran through the walls. I sat up and my mom left her seat.
“Jesi’s back,” I heard her say, but I didn’t hear his response. Soon, his heavy feet were in the kitchen and he was towering over me.
“Hi, Daddy,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow. “Won’t you hug your father?” he said, and I got up quickly. “So did you find your way?” he said. “Did you follow my directions?”
“I’m glad you made it back. I wasn’t sure about you travelling all that way by yourself; you’ve never been much of a driver,” he said. He dropped his workbag to the ground with a thud.
“She used MapQuest too,” my mom offered. “And it didn’t take her as long as it should have, did it, Jess?”
I shook my head. “I think I’m gonna go lie down,” I said; suddenly I felt very tired. I snuck out of the kitchen before my father could think of something else to say, and if he saw my escape, he probably didn’t mind it since he and I never talked much anyway.
My room was cleaner than I last remembered it, but it still smelled like M by Mariah Carey. I tiptoed in and grabbed my black Cabbage Patch doll from the nightstand beside my bed. I should’ve brought you with me, I thought while looking into the doll’s freakish eyes. I poked a finger in her dimple. All around me sat evidence of my pre-summer confidence: high heels, certificates, paintings. I lay on my bed and picked up one of my senior portraits, the one of me in a traditional dress, staring straight and strong at the camera; my favorite. I tried to put myself in a studio again. I looked in the full-length mirror across the room and tried to imagine myself feeling pretty in front of a photographer, but it didn’t work. My neck stiffened and I looked away from my nervous reflection. I wondered what my future husband would think if I refused to take any wedding pictures. Surely a timid wife couldn’t be grounds for annulment. But I was getting ahead of myself. Getting married would require a fiancé, or at least a man, neither of which I had.
When I was a kid I couldn’t understand why my mom had married my father. I used to watch her make earrings and hairclips for my sisters and me when we couldn’t afford the ones in the store. Her hands were quick, but she glued down the buttons and the jellybeans with the same gentle determination she used when she pressed Mickey Mouse shapes into my sandwiches. And I would wonder how such a classic beauty could marry a man who had no shame and didn’t know how to say thank you.
The doorbell rang, and there was a shuffle of small feet.
“Jesi, Chris’s here!” Ugo yelled, and I went downstairs.
Chris broke into the biggest smile when I saw him. His nickname was “Cheddar Giant” because when he grinned like that he showed all his teeth, and he was tall. I grinned too and came closer, and he crushed me between his thick arms and broad chest.
“Someone’s gained some muscle,” I said, pinching his bicep. “And your hair got longer.”
He shrugged. “Just trying to get your attention,” he laughed, and he smoothed his shirt. “What are you doing tonight?” he said. “You tired?”
“No. I mean, I was gonna take a nap, but whatever.”
“You wanna come out with me and the boys tonight?”
“What are ya’ll finna do?”
“Just goin’ to Club 7.”
“Are there any girls with you?”
“Yeah, Jayla and Shanice’ll be there.”
“You don’t smoke weed now, do you?” I asked. Chris shook his head. “My parents would never let me go regardless.”
“Jessike, you’re nineteen. Tell ‘em you’re going to my place, and I’ll bring you back at one.”
I checked my watch: it was nine o’clock. “Alright,” I sighed. “Let me go get some clothes and stuff together and I’ll tell my parents we’re leaving.”
Being next to Chris in his car felt so good, I could hardly sit still. We talked and I held his gaze and it was like there was nothing wrong with me. But I guess that made sense because Chris made people comfortable. He was the type of guy who everyone wanted to be around. Still, I basked in the giddiness that bubbled throughout my body as we drove from the quiet suburbs and into the joyless city.
TO BE CONTINUED!!!
TO BE CONTINUED!!!