How Old are You Now?

Episode 3:

I am nineteen at a time and in a city where the things you dream of are labelled in blue ink and tucked within the pages of any book you can lay your hands on, including the many weathered magazines that your mother has begged you incessantly to give to Mama Ibinabo who sells roasted corn and ube opposite your house. I forgive my mother many things, for instance, she cannot possibly know how much these magazines mean to me, these colourful pages littered with photos of exotic flat-chested models in sparse clothing, who appear as though every ounce of expression has been milked off their faces, leaving jutting cheek bones and defiant jaws that are both arresting and frightening. My mother cannot understand how significant a role she has played in my dreams even, from the time I was eight and it was sinful for an eight year old to have breasts.

My big brother, Chukwuedo, has always been, as my favourite Aunty Amaka liked to put it, “a little mad in the brain.” He was a chubby troublesome thing at twelve, with a terrible finger-sucking habit that was immune to all the bitter-leaf juice that Aunty Amaka dipped them in. Aunty Amaka was the only one who could speak sense into Chukwuedo, the reason why he did not turn out worse. Perhaps, this is why I should have told her the first time Chukwuedo squeezed my breast on our way home from school, and later, in the bedroom we shared. The next night he twisted each nipple with two fingers, and the night after, he suckled them, one after the other. It was Aunty Amaka that walked in on us that night, screamed “Blood of Jesus!” and gave Chukwuedo two sharp slaps on both cheeks before pulling me outside to wait for my mother’s return from her shop.

I had slept off before my mother came home that night, and for a whole week after that, she did not speak to any of us. Chukwuedo grew sullen and wouldn’t touch his food for long periods, Aunty Amaka made me follow her everywhere she went, and she kept saying, “If anybody touches you, tell me. You hear?” until my I thought my ears would split into halves and all I wanted to do was run away.

And then, my mother arose from her silence on a Sunday evening, and called me to her bedroom. I took one look at the broom beside her and the mortar and I fell to my knees crying.

“Come now, I will not beat you.” her voice was soft, too soft. She beckoned for me to come and lie on her bed, and bewildered, I stood and obeyed.

Oya, remove your blouse.”

I removed it, stretching as she adjusted her wrapper and picked up the broom. I will always associate the smell of Eva soap with my mother, with my childhood. In that moment, as I lay still, too afraid to even breathe in her soap smell, I truly believed that she was going to kill me, and I have never been more frightened. She dipped the head of the broom into the mortar and ground it against its contents as I got a first whiff of fresh pepper. I covered my breasts instinctively and started to cry again.

“Munachimso, remove your hand or I will slap you.”

I was silent, confused, afraid. I took my hands off but my eyes never left her face. She brought the broom down on one breast, and began to crush it in circular movements, the way you grind egusi with stone. She was focused, quiet, and not once did she ask me to stop hollering. It was as though she knew how quickly I would wear out from screaming Aunty Amaka’s name even though she was not home, from tasting the droplets of sweat that rolled off her body into my gaping mouth – sweat and soap and fear.

I cannot tell how long I had lain there beneath my mother’s broom, but I remember that we had Abacha for dinner that night, and I could not lift my fork, even though my plate was heaped with chunks of kanda and strips of smoked fish and fresh garden egg cubes. I remember that in the weeks after that night, I would sleep curled up in a tight ball at the farthest corner of our bed, and the only times I spoke to Chukwuedo were when we came home from school and I would dish out his food in a ceramic plate and call for him to come and get it, in a very loud voice, because I would never say it twice.

Aunty Amaka returned from Aba the next morning with three bralettes wrapped in a black nylon bag, asking me to wash them very well before I use them, but I never did. I could not stand to confine these mounds that still throbbed with the slightest touch. Growing up, I became increasingly amazed at the potency of my mother’s broom, because my breasts never grew big enough to fill a decent bra, and I never wore one until I started attending JAMB lessons at eighteen, when my friends had already transitioned to C cups and D cups.

No, I do not mind the smallness of my breasts. I am actually quite proud of them. Now that Chukwuedo is away at School and I have the room to myself, I have taken to prancing about naked, my back ramrod straight, to cupping my breasts and tossing my head back like Tyra Banks. Also, since I learned about my name appearing on the admission list at the University of Port-Harcourt, I have adopted this new gait in public too. My joy doesn’t stem only from the reality that I am finally moving away into a world where I can live outside the sheets of my precious battered fashion magazines, it is because I am proud that I did not need  extra lessons and later, nearly all my mother’s savings, to get into school like Chukwuedo did.

There is no ounce of fat on my brother anymore, for in the years he spent waiting for admission, he found love in a dumbbell at our backyard, and it was as though we turned around for a second only to find that Chukwuedo had transformed into a broad-chested, long-legged beauty. Perhaps, I should thank him for all my friends who suddenly began to visit and linger, helping me with the house chores and giggling at all my jokes, constantly priming themselves for Chukwuedo’s newly acquired baritone voice and nonchalant gait.

Things are so much better between us now since he moved to Owerri, and I no longer resent him for making me wait until he got into school before I could try JAMB. It is he who I first call with news about my admission.

“My Smallie has gotten into school o! Wow.” His voice, warm and rich and smooth as silk, fills me with pride. He has never called me that before, Smallie, but today everything feels good, so good that I want to cook fresh fish pepper soup and serve my mother in her bedroom, for the first time in many years.

I will visit Aunty Amaka tomorrow, in Woji, where she has moved in with her husband. We will sit on the tiled floors of her beautiful home and talk about my good news, a bowl of her tasty chin-chin between us. I want to laugh and rest my head on her solid, capable shoulder, to feel her breath fanning my neck while she takes in my excitement and my fear in equal measures.

For tonight though, I wait for my mother to sleep so that I can go out to meet Tonye in his Mercedes. I snuggle into the front seat and let him pull me in an embrace, smelling the alcohol first before the perfume with the woody scent.

Some things you never share with anyone, not even your favourite Aunty in the world, your best friend, because talking about Tonye would mean talking about everything.

“Hi,” I say to him, and with the casualness of a man swatting a fly, his hand shoots forward, cups my cheek and slaps it. Hard.

I allow the seconds to pass as my stinging cheek awakens a dull throbbing around the back of my brain, as I bite my lip to keep the tears in.

Some things you never share with anyone, not even your best friend.

P.S: I apologize for the hiatus. Please give me another chance to fill you in every Sunday as promised 🙈🙈.

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