My eyes on his red tie, my tongue untangled itself, and my words spilled, in a clear voice. I told him about my Cosmopolitan and Essence magazines, my obsession with Tyra Banks, about my fights with Mummy, Chukwuedo’s antics, and my hopes for university. I even talked about the boy at school who said he wanted to marry me, who squeezed a five hundred naira note in my hand during our graduation ceremony. There was something quietly intimate in the way Uncle Tonye stared at my face, as though he were reaching out to touch it instead, and in the years after that day, he would glance at me like that, often, and even long afterwards , his eyes never lost their effect on me.
Uncle Tonye adjusted his tie and cut into my monologue saying, “He would have given you more, you know.”
“What?” I did not understand.
“I mean your small boyfriend from school. I am sure he would have given you more money if he had it. That is what men do with beautiful women; they spend money on their heads.”
We laughed together, his tentative until I joined in and it became a full blown guffaw. I sat up a little straighter, held my neck a little higher. Uncle Tonye had called me beautiful and my body seemed to rise to the occasion.
I do not like to remember this, but I kissed him first, when he left his chair to sit on the table so that his outstretched legs were nudging mine. I stood up, placed both palms on either side of Uncle Tonye’s face, and I kissed him.
Uncle Tonye paused first, but only for a nanosecond, before his hands circled my waist. He did not taste like the boys at school or like my neighbour’s cousin that came to spend the holidays last month. He kissed with a lot of tongue, sweet-tasting like orange juice, delving into my mouth and biting my lower lip in turns. Then he was breathing into my mouth, heaving and sighing.
When he pulled away, his eyes were dilated, his mouth unsmiling. He asked me to lie on the table and take off my skirt while he went to lock the door.
And there I was, flat on my back, my legs wide apart like a woman awaiting scrutiny from her Gynaecologist, when Uncle Tonye knelt in between them and flickered his way through my legs with his tongue, murmuring, “You are dripping,” in a voice so soft I wanted to burst into tears.
On that table, my eyes on the stark white ceiling, Uncle Tonye found me in the swirling and lapping of his tongue between my legs, murmuring words that I could not understand. I was crying and shuddering when he left me, numb when he wiped me up with tissue and helped me dress up. He ran his fingers through the braids that had unknotted themselves from the band that held them, and tied them back in place. He hugged me and kissed my forehead, all the while looking at me the way only Uncle Tonye could look at a person, but that day it was different. His eyes were drowning in their moistness, his breathing heavy and ragged.
Then, he opened his drawer and counted the notes, lots and lots of five hundred naira notes. I looked away when he was handing me the money, pressing it into the narrow pocket of my jeans. The ensuing bulge was evident.
“I can drive you home. I don’t want these Garrison boys to steal that money from you,” He offered.
“No, I will do fine by myself.”
He shrugged, “Thank your mother for me. Tell her that I will see her soon.”
I was unlocking his door when he called my name.
“Don’t go alone, please. Go downstairs and ask for Amadi. He will drop you off at home, please.”
“Are you hungry?”
“You may be soon. Amadi can stop by at Kilimanjaro if you want.”
I took his smell home with me, the woody scent of his perfume mixed with the sweet-smelling hand wash that followed the trail of his hand on my skin with every touch.
I am here now, in Tonye’s car, wrestling myself away from a grip that has become too firm.
“You are hurting me!”
He pulls me closer, and his alcohol breath makes me want to vomit.
“Tonye, for God’s sake!” I slap his hand away.
“Oh Come on, “ he drawls, “Is that how you thank me for coming all the way to see your beautiful face?”
I hiss, “Oh really? Would you like to go in and say Hello to my mother too?”
He places a hand on my shoulder, his ensuing words sound as though there is a crushing pain inside him every time he utters them. “Muna, I am sorry. It’s your Aunty. She is driving me nuts!”
I roll my eyes. Not tonight, Tonye.
He continues, “Prince pooped on himself today while his Private Tutor was around. Next thing, your aunty wants to rip my balls apart when I come home from work. She won’t stop talking! God! It’s like I connived with the big guy to give her an imbecile for a son!”
“Is it so hard? I tell her to send the kid back to America; my in-laws will enrol him in a school and watch him for us. I tell her all the time, but all she goes on about is my lack of empathy. Have you seen your Aunty lately? She is like a mad house all by herself! If only she would put all that energy into conceiving another child.”
I laugh, “It takes two people to make a baby, you know.”
“I don’t appreciate your smart mouth this evening,” He retorts.
I lean into him again, pressing my face against his shirt, drinking into his scent, the wood and the sourness.
“She is killing me, Muna. She is draining my soul,” His voice has softened and there is a catch in his breath. I hold on to him as I await the waterfalls.
Tonye is the only man I have ever seen cry, and often about Aunty Akudo. I had washed his heaving body in the shower of a hotel room after her first miscarriage, had taken his penis in my mouth in the darkness of this same car to stop his tears when his father died, and cleaned him up one night at a bar, after he had drunk himself to a pitiable mess of tears and vomit.
I cradle his head now, like a baby’s, and I let him cry. I have to admire a woman who reduces a man to a mere toddler, but it is also one more reason to resent her, my dearest Aunty Akudo.
I wait for Tonye to collect himself so that I can inform him that I have finally gained admission into the University of Port Harcourt. Knowing him, he is probably the reason. He must have called some friends at the university to help effect my admission, but I want to hear him say it to my face. When he does, I will pout and cause a fuss, going on about how much I wanted this admission to be completely deserved. I will watch him attempt to appease me, a new phone? Money perhaps? I will haggle with him like we usually do, until I strike a deal that is worth all the effrontery he took to bribe my name into the admission list without my permission.
Comely, is the adjective that my manager uses when he first spots me from amongst the girls who have come to audition for a place at his agency. Mr. Henry, stout and sturdy, surveys us one by one as he addresses us, the way you do slabs of beef at the market. When his eyes fall on my face, he rubs his hands in delight and exclaims, “Comely!”
I am already well into my first year at school, yet I have never heard anybody use that word before, but it feels good, even though I dislike the man on sight, with his slightly extended lower lip resting above a ridiculously small jaw. That, along with his wide forehead and bushy eyebrows, gives him an eerie look, and an unsettling feeling at the pit of my stomach.
“You are very comely! What is ya name?”
“Hmmm,” He scratches his non-existent beard. “And ya age?”
“Good. Good. I like the way you walk and I like ya face. This is your official welcome to Hen’s Modelling Agency.”
I feel eyes on me as I move forward and shake his outstretched, limp hand.
“Thank you very much, Sir.” I gush, smiling widely.
“The rest of you, Impress me. I will pick three more,” He declares.
I sit beside him in a white plastic chair as the other girls begin another round of walking, the click-clack of their heels echoing from a faraway place in my head. I am already dreaming of walking down a runway in some fancy place like Paris. I imagine the blinding camera lights, the awestruck faces around me, and the soft music in a language I do not understand.
I think that time moves fast when your dreams start shaping up, because it seems as though I blinked and suddenly I am this twenty year old long-legged person, thought to be comely, ready to take on the world. I think also that there is a level of careless arrogance that comes with this realization, and perhaps, it is this same arrogance that brings me inside Aunty Akudo’s bedroom in the mansion I have long stopped visiting, this arrogance that masks a naiveté where I imagine that she would not know I am sleeping with her husband.
I am home for the weekend, and she calls me to help her sort through some baby clothes she had bought after her second pregnancy and wouldn’t need.
“Sister Amaka di ime. She will need it,” Aunty Akudo says by way of explanation, with the familiarity of one who speaks to me on the phone every day, and in a tone that suggests I do not know that Aunty Amaka is pregnant.
It is 12 noon, and I am here, perched at the edge of Aunty Akudo’s bed while she sits beside the pile of clothes on the centre rug. She is even thinner than I remember, greenish veins visible on the bony hands that peek out of her oversized bou-bou. I am no longer frightened of her, for even though she is the monster in Tonye’s stories, it has become to me a demystification of the enigma I feared for many years.
She pats the heap of carefully folded clothes, and smiles at me, thanking me for taking the time to come to her home.
“It is nothing, Aunty,” I reply.
“How is Chukwuedo? It has been so long.”
“He is fine o! He is in Owerri.”
“And your mother?”
“She is fine. Aunty. She sends her greetings.”
“She didn’t send her greetings to my husband too? I suppose not. Since he is always coming to your house at odd hours of the night, right?”
Aunty Akudo’s expression has not changed; the smile is still on her face when I look up at her, and I clench my fists to keep them from trembling.
“Eh?” she probes.
“My mother sends her greetings to Uncle Tonye as well.”
She laughs, that ugly sound, her shoulders shuddering as she doubles over.
“Uncle Tonye, you say? Is that what you call him when he is fucking you?” She looks as though she is about to choke.
I say nothing, watching her rise slowly and gather her bou-bou in the middle with one hand as she stands before me.
“You must already know how much I hate you, filthy little bitch. Your mother taught you how to settle for crumbs, didn’t she? To sit around like a leper and wait for things to be handed down to you.”
“Aunty Akudo, your fight is with me. Leave my mother out of this!” My heart is thudding against my chest in quick successions but I pace my words so that they are clear and firm.
She smiles down at me. “I can’t fight with a small girl like you. Just one curse and you will be begging for an early grave, but I don’t have your time.”
Just then, there is a knock on the door.
“Yes! Come in.”
The cook opens the door, announces that food is ready, and disappears just as quickly.
Aunty Akudo turns back to me with a grin that looks like her face would split into two if she smiles any wider. “Munachimso, will you stay for lunch? We have native soup or ogbono soup if you like.” She asks cheerfully.
“No, Thank you,” I reply stiffly.
It is this smile that will stay entrenched in my head in the days that follow, after I tell Tonye that his wife knows and he tells me not to be afraid, and a month after, when Aunty Amaka calls me on the phone to say that Aunty Akudo is dead.