His lips taste like rubber and he needs to shave. Kissing him is like brushing my face with a hairbrush. I wrap my arm around his neck to hold on, the movement brings my hand to the front of my face, and there, sitting on my finger, is the one thing that’s supposed to make this all worth it. I bend my fingers to get a better view, watch as the rock catches the light and I think, my mother would be so proud. A sigh forces itself out of my mouth into his, and as he grunts in response his doughy fingers dig deeper into my back. Ouch.
Believe it or not there was a time my eyes closed when I kissed, when my stomach grew a million tiny wings and my heart spun my head around in dizzying bursts of bliss. Love, I called it, until the day a hungry danfo driver forgot to put his left foot on the brake pedal of his vehicle, as a young man crossed the street. I see him still, sometimes, when I close my eyes; he smiles down at me, reaches out his arms, and I hear the strange sound of my own laughter as I run and run and run to hold him. I never get there.
They said I should move on, so I did; that love was a choice, so I let my mother choose for me. She sat me down and said to me, “Arike, love is like pounded yam, it can go with any kind of soup, you just have to get used to the new taste.”
My mother had always been a very deep person. Even now her choice of illustration for this talk was instructive to me in a very specific way. She knew I hated pounding yam. The process of crushing the slippery pieces of boiled yam while they seemed to make every effort to dodge and slip from under the mortar was one irritating chore I had never liked. I was expected not to sweat over the steaming yam nor to wipe my sweat with anything I was wearing while at this pounding. My mum was that scrupulous. And now she was comparing love to my most annoying kitchen chore.
Thinking about her words, I had to be proactive. I was to select the yam and do the pounding. If this analogy were taken as seriously as my mum’s face and tone indicated, then I was the Banga soup, patiently waiting for the right pounded yam to drop by. Only in a cruelly humourous twist, I would also be the yam pounder. Like a dibia, my mum spread out the photos of the three significant men in my life. I felt a bit uneasy but then I realised how many native doctors were secretly consulted by mothers on behalf of their daughters who seemed slow at finding love. At least, Mother was not dragging me off to some obscure…. I shuddered involuntarily as my mind refused to process the horror of the dehumanising things those ladies had to go through. Mother, be a native doctor, my mind gladly prayed.
Fred was first up for consideration. I knew he loved me and he made no secret of it. While Joseph, my “lightning and thunder” was alive, Fred could not summon the courage to fight for my attention. I was already putting him in the “yellow yam” zone – he who must not be pounded. Mother sensed this and laughed at me. She said, “I was just like you once when I first married your father; He loved me more than I loved him, but when he grew tired of eating just one soup everyday, I began to crave the attention Fred now lavishes on you. Young lady, put yourself in your realistic place.”
Pushing Fred’s picture to one side, she regarded the next young man grinning at us through the photo with suspicion. He had a job and was physically attractive but that only heightened the feeling that something must be fundamentally wrong for him to be single into his late thirties. I shared Mother’s sentiments. Apparently, Tunde was squarely in the new yam category. Fibrous and difficult to turn into a consistent, smooth poundo, but yam nonetheless.
Kwesi was the typical old yam variety. Dependable, predictable, patient, flexible, mature. The only problem was that he was, well… old. Images of me as a young wife guiding the older version of Kwesi flashed through my mind. I shuddered again. How could this old man do the things my Thunder and Lightning had done to me? Why did Mother even bring out his photo?! I felt repulsed by the other two, but towards this one I felt worse than rejection. I felt a cool indifference to his entire existence. I could already see him and me in a cold war of silence many years down the line. And my fears seemed to grow wings and horns and breathe fire when I saw the tender smile of my mother’s face fall on the graduation portrait photo of Kwesi. I felt the cold fingers of romantic death creep slowly over my heart. I knew old yam was best for making pounded yam but now I felt sick enough to abandon the whole analogy altogether!!!
The plan was simple, as Mama explained, “You do not need to eat a whole egg before you know it is spoilt.” Our opportunity to observe these gentlemen in the uncomfortable environment of a Yaya family meeting would present itself at the upcoming naming ceremony of our latest addition to the clan. If these three men honoured the invitation, they would be hassled by elderly aunts, serenaded by buxom half sisters, engaged by giggling teenagers and harassed by the questions of the talking toddlers. It would be the perfect opportunity to find out which of these men would make for a good husband for me. Yes, that was the unadorned truth.
The air was light and the atmosphere homely as the guests arrived one by one. I was told to hang back to avoid being captured as an escort for the party by any one of the contending gladiators. Fred arrived, dressed like a prince eager to prove his worth. Tunde arrived at the same time with a slim, tall lady whom I did not immediately recognize. Kwesi came alone, as usual, with some extra grey hairs since the last time I saw him. I silently rolled my eyes as I considered the annoying options on my plate. The Banga was ready ages ago. Who would be the pounded yam?
Our opportunity for the test came sooner than expected. I had trouble opening the wine bottle. Fred eagerly volunteered to help and wrestled for several minutes while ignoring the offers of assistance from the crowd who were watching eagerly. It became a test of strength. Fred would not let any man do what he could not do in front of me. The laughter that ensued was such that, when he finally managed to get it open, the young kids called out for more tests of strength and skill.
The bottle of cashew nuts was produced and set on the centre table. Now everyone knew this particular cashew bottle in my house, except these three gentlemen gladiators. It had the roundest, most alluring nuts in it but that was just the problem. They were so round that none could squeeze through the neck of the bottle. This bottle had been sitting in our kitchen for a week now. All attempts to serve it to visitors had failed when the secret battle in the kitchen to coax the nuts out of the bottle had failed. Now the wisest man, or the strongest man, would be the one who could eat the first cashew nut out of the bottle.
Again Fred jumped to the fore. The patience of the onlookers, already stretched by his insistence in the wine bottle task, was so quickly exhausted that it was obvious Fred had made a poor first impression on the Yaya clan. And we usually did not give second chances. Fred was laughed off the table while Tunde stepped forward to make his argument.
The bottle was almost broken by Tunde in his frantic attempts to get the first elusive cashew nut out of the bottle. I had never known the depth of feeling these men had. I was just witnessing their emotion for the first time in an arena charged with competition. I could love these men. They only needed to show half as much enthusiasm in their conversations with me to win my heart! Tunde was almost getting his fat finger stuck in the bottle when he was begged to allow Kwesi have a go.
The Ghanaian foreigner stepped forward and asked for a box of matches. Puzzled, we got the cigarette lighter from the kitchen. He calmly applied the flame to the neck of the bottle for a few minutes and then turned it to produce the first, glorious cashew nut. Then he did the sweetest thing. He walked up to me, went on one knee, and offered the precious nut to me without any words. To say the least, I was flattered, embarrassed and happy at the same time. Would I choose respect and wisdom over rash youth? For the first time in my life I could confidently say yes.
I had known the Thunder and Lightning. Now I would know the rain. Of course we would talk. Of course he would show me more of his wisdom and romance. And on my part, I would show him my devotion and the sweetness of my Banga soup, both literally and figuratively.
My mind came back to the present encounter in bed. He was almost coming. I could feel it. But I wasn’t angry. I could talk to him, relate with him. I could tell him how to groom himself and how to please me. He was the perfect yam type. I would be his Banga soup and pounder. With that thought, I allowed him take me and find his release.