Hello Story tellers! It’s Friday (whoop whoop!) which means another installment of the Parent Project. Today, we have an amazing story from the uber talented @Edgothboy. Please relax and enjoy this hauntingly beautiful tale of a boy and his parents.
*Cassette clicks on*
I: Tell me about your first parents.
K: My first memory of them is from when I was about three.
We’re in a playground, somewhere in Africa. West Africa, I think. I’m not really sure. Father travelled a lot back then, and we with him. We’re on a playground, or at least I am, at first. It’s an artificial playground like the ones in America, a jungle of metal bent and twisted in what would symbolically be frightening if it were a piece of art. I’m sitting in the sandbox; I remember the sand, mounds of it scooped in my tiny palms. I am not alone. There is someone else, a little girl with wild curly hair so yellow, sunlight makes it translucent. We have our legs buried deep enough that it touches the metal bottom of the pit and she’s scooping sand with a blue plastic pail and pouring it over our buried legs while I pat it firm. I remember that there was a woman watching us from the only bench seat beside the playground. She says something and the girl turns, her hair spinning around her, catching light. It reminds me of sparklers from my third birthday cake but gentler. I sneak in a touch. The girl waves with pudgy fingers and the woman smiles.
Then her face changes. We both see it at the same time. I notice then too that there is a fence behind the woman, not like the brick one in the house we were living in at the time, but made of chain-link, you can see through it to the busy street beyond. The girl stands up and our mound disintegrates. I stand too, because she has, and she squats and tries to fix the sand. Her mother is off her seat and running to us. Her eyes are on something behind us. I start to look back and then she screams.
“Get back! Get back or I swear to God I will scream!”
Someone speaks behind me. The voice is low and rumbling. A man’s voice. She reaches us and swoops down like a hawk. I’m in the air, then on her hip. She is running, away from the sandbox to the exit on the other side of the park. The girl is on her other side, and she has buried her head on the woman’s shoulder. This is her mother, I realise. Where is mine?
I hear it now, footsteps behind us. The rumbling has turned to thundering. He is shouting something at her. She doesn’t stop running. My throat tightens and I try not to cry. I panic and turn as far as her arm will allow. Then my heart swells. And I scream.
She stops cold. Drops me on the pavement beside the grass. Steps away from me, just two steps. She is saying something, a lot of somethings. It’s rushing out of her when my father picks me up, and I wrap my olive arms around his brown neck. He crushes me against him. I can feel his heart on my belly, beating. It’s so fast. It feels like if it goes any faster it’s going to burst. The words pouring out of her slowly and I start to understand them.
“So sorry. Oh God, I feel like the biggest fool in the world. I thought you were a kidnapper. No bla… Oh God, I’m sorry. I can’t believe I just said that. I feel so stupid.”
There are tears trickling down her face. My father slowly walks up to her and puts a hand on her shoulder. I find her daughter’s face, she isn’t crying anymore. Her eyes are wide as saucers. She is gawping at my father.
“It’s all my fault.” My father says. “I should have been better dressed. I just left the construction site a little late and remembered Regina said you were bringing them here for their play date.”
I look down. He is dressed the way he always is when he gets back from work; blue jeans and boots with a shirt that has many lines on it. I’d never realised there was a better way to dress to work. The woman wipes her cheek with the back of her hand and drops her daughter. She offers him her hand; he takes it and shakes vigorously. He tries to set me down; I cling tighter to his neck.
“It’s fine. Everyone makes those kinds of mistakes. You should have seen him when he was born; he was so pink the nurses tittered about me being cuckolded. He is only just starting to look like me. Regina’s genes are as tenacious as she used to be.”
They both laugh, his sounds like sneezing, and hers is too loud. Relieved, she begins to smile. There is something about the way my father speaks, with a lilting British accent that puts people at ease, It happens too many times to count growing up. The woman’s cheeks flush as she asks my father if he’d like to join her for lunch as an apology, her treat. He politely declines. We leave, me peeking over my father’s shoulder at the woman’s daughter. She is still gawping.
I: And your mother?
K: My mother is special, or strange. Depending on how you see the world.
I didn’t realise how different she was until I went to primary school. Father was away in Dakar for about a month; part of a research group for some UNICEF thing and the driver didn’t come for me. I sat outside the gates of my primary school in my white uniform, growing increasingly agitated with each hour that passed. Father didn’t see the point of extra mural lessons after eight hours of school so when the kids who’d stayed behind started exiting the gate in pairs of twos and threes three hours after school ended my worry turned into something else. I had about a thousand naira with me but I’d never used public transportation before and while my mother used it fairly regularly she’d never let me outside our gate alone. I used to put my head to the gate and listen, imagining scenarios for the sounds I heard. I took my pen and a notebook out and tried to piece together a route home from the stories I’d heard father tell. All I had was Obalende and Surulere, I couldn’t think of anything else.
I raised my head, fists clenched at my sides. Since my mother told me what it meant, I hated the word. One of the older boys from primary six was standing across from me. He saw my face and raised his hands.
“Sorry. I don’t know your name and that’s what everybody calls you.”
“Kieran.” I practically growled the word.
“Kieran, sorry for calling you Afin. Why are you vexing for it, what does it mean?”
I couldn’t hide the surprise on my face. “How can you not know what it means?”
“I’m Igbo, my name is Ebuka. Not everybody knows Yoruba.”
“So what does it mean?” He walked over and sat beside me. I scooted over so he could share my culvert.
“It means albino.”
I nodded. He reached into his backpack and brought out a pack of rich tea cookies and opened it. We ate in silence. At a quarter to six, a grey SUV flew down the street and screeched, halting in front of us. A frazzled woman in a business suit came out and hurried over to us. She took Ebuka’s face in her palm and kissed him severally on the cheeks. There was a yellow splotch on her left pant leg and her white shirt had a brown collar but she didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m sorry my dear, I totally forgot you were here. Ndo.”
Ebuka rolled his eyes. “No o. I no gree. You will bribe me.”
She pouted. “Oh! Okay na. Ice-cream abi?” She stopped fidgeting when she noticed me. “Obi’m, who is this your Oyibo friend?”
I stood up and offered my hand like father had taught me. “My name’s Kieran.”
She took my hand and pulled me into a hug. I blanched and held myself as still as I could; sitting by the road for nearly four hours had turned my white uniform a dusty brown. She didn’t seem to notice. She finally released me and walked to the car. Ebuka grabbed my hand and dragged me along.
“Oyibo where are your parents?” she asked once she got to the car.
Ebuka nudged me and I spoke up. “Our driver hasn’t come to get me and my father’s out of town.”
Ebuka’s mom frowned. “What of your mother?”
I shook my head. “She doesn’t go out. But I have our house phone number, if you can take me somewhere I can call home from, I’d be very grateful.”
She smiled and waved me and Ebuka into the backseat, shut the door behind us. She drove, her eyes always on us through the rear view mirror. Ebuka seemed used to it, because he wedged himself between the two front seats and fell into a bilingual conversation with her, switching between Igbo and English filled with cackling at lame jokes I didn’t understand but laughed to anyway. We went over third mainland bridge and around, taking routes I’d never seen.
“This is where I live!” I shouted from the backseat, pointing at the stadium under construction. Ebuka and his mother started laughing and she pushed him gently back into the back of the car.
“Better then. Your mom won’t have to drive far to come get you.”
I kept quiet. I wasn’t quite sure my mom knew how to drive. I had never seen her use either of the two cars in our yard.
Ebuka’s house was small but clean. It was clean but it wasn’t neat. There were specks of dirt forgotten in the living room’s corners, and the dining table hadn’t been cleared of the morning’s breakfast. I went straight for the phone and dialled my house. Mother picked at the first ring.
“Mom it’s me Kieran.”
She sighed loudly. “Thank God. I was about to call your father and ask him what to do. The driver spoilt the car; he’s been trying to fix it all evening. Where are you?”
I put my hand over the receiver and asked Ebuka’s mom, who was reclined on the living room sofa eating Ice-cream with Ebuka.
“Right beside the Children’s hospice at Aguda. It’s my friend’s house. They say it’s in Surulere so it shouldn’t be far from our house. When are you…”
The phone went dead. I dropped the receiver and went to join Ebuka and his mom on their sofa; they’d brought an extra spoon for me.
The doorbell rang twenty five minutes later. I started to rise but Ebuka’s mom wouldn’t hear it, asked me to finish my food. I wolfed down the rest of my plate of Jollof rice and rushed to pull on my sandals. Then I heard shouting from outside. I ran out with Ebuka. My mother had her head outside of a rickety yellow taxi parked outside Ebuka’s house, her auburn hair falling around her face in droopy sweaty strings. She was wearing a sweater that covered her arms and her face was flushed.
“… bad enough you took another person’s child home, you proceeded to feed him! What the hell is wrong with you? Do you know if he has allergies or not? Do you know if he has any medical conditions? I am so incensed right now; I wish I could get out this car and use you to wipe the floor! Urgh!”
“Mommy!” I whispered, half hidden behind Ebuka’s mom. I’d never seen her that way with strangers before. “Mommy?”
She didn’t seem to notice me. She craned out the taxi window a little more and glared. “Just because my son is an ‘Oyibo’ like you so casually pointed, doesn’t make him a Barbie doll or a poodle for you to pick off the street and feed. He is a human being! I won’t stand for you people to treat him this way.”
Her eyes seemed to come into focus and stop on me. She stretched her hand and beckoned. “Kieran Adeseluka, say thank you to the nice lady and get into the car right now!”
I reluctantly raised my head to Ebuka’s mom and sighed. “I’m so sorry ma.”
She smiled. “Its fine, I understand.”
I remember Ebuka and his mother watch us drive away. The look on her face was indecipherable and he surprised. I felt small, like I’d led them into something much larger than they could hope to understand. When we got home, she marched me straight to the bathtub and scrubbed me all over till I felt raw. Then she cleaned the house. I could still hear her cleaning way past midnight as I pretended to sleep. After that day, I realised why Mother never went out, she was too busy cleaning. I remember her in the houses I grew up in, wiping tables, washing curtains, dusting behind the TV and under the VCR, which is kind of pointless when you live in Lagos. It was a battle against the dirt that she’d never win but she fought oh so valiantly. It was then I noticed how she would sneak off to the sink to wash her hands and wipe her lips after she kissed my father and hugged me.
*silence, scratch and flare of a match being lit, deep sigh*
I: You have talked about them individually; do you have any memories of them together?
K: Funny you should ask that. Feels like yesterday they were in civil court fighting for custody. Isn’t it ironic, that they tussled over me like a piece of meat?
You want to know why I remember all that I have told you in such startling detail?
They brought it up in court as evidence against each other. Oh, they brought that and so much more. They dragged each other through the mud so thoroughly I wondered if they had ever loved each other. And they were so civil, my father in his corner of the court room, watching in his horn-rimmed glasses and his three piece suit and his face that never so much as twitched, like a mannequin. And she sat with her hands in her lap, afraid to touch anything so she wouldn’t need to run off and wash. I’d never seen her struggle so much.
I barely knew them; both of them, I told them this when the court called me up to give testimony. It was the first time I’d seen them in the same room in nearly three years and neither of them could really see me.
He brought up the fact that I was getting bullied in school and she talked of how I didn’t fit in in Nigeria, how I had struggled. I was fine with them embarrassing each other, but when they turned to me, I got angry and petty, a trait I inherited from my mother. So I told the judge how much worse it had gotten with her now, locking herself in her room for days at a time and lying in bed, moaning about it didn’t matter how much she tried, nothing ever stayed clean. I told the judge he hadn’t stayed up to a month at home with me in years, the missed PTA meetings and soccer meets, the forgotten birthdays. The surprise and betrayal on both of their faces when the judge granted my request to be put into foster care was the first real reaction I’d gotten in a while, it was just so sad that even that victory had to be bittersweet. To be free of him, I had to lose her as well. There was no chance in hell the judge would have granted my mother custody.
I: Do you think your problems will be solved by becoming legally emancipated?
K: I don’t know, I’m just sixteen. I’m lucky that the judge is letting me out of the system, most kids aren’t that lucky; they stay trapped till they’re eighteen. I’ve spent three years in Foster care because I wanted to teach them a lesson. I regret that now but at some point I know I have to take responsibility for my own mistakes.
I barely know my father. I have spent most of my childhood and most of my teens in his shadow, being reminded how little or how much I was like him, even though he is almost never here. I wasted so much time looking for my mother, then trying to fix her and when that failed, helping her hide everything wrong with her from everyone else.
I shouldn’t have had to care for my mother this way. I shouldn’t have had to live up to his standards. They both wanted such vastly different things from me I ended up living two different lives to please them. It was tiring; it still is. I’m just sixteen but I feel thirty two, I am both of them and I am neither. I’m tired of living for them; I want to live for me.
I: So what do you plan to do now, Kieran?
K: The deed on her father’s cabin house just passed to me as I’m now technically an adult. I’ll sign my mother out of the adult care home next month and we’ll live there for the summer. The sunshine and the time away will be good for her, or maybe it won’t. But I have to try. Maybe then my father. I got his latest email. He’s getting remarried in Lagos in the fall, to a Nigerian this time. He wants me to come, be his best man. I think I’ll go.
Maybe it’s time to get to know them again, my parents. As adults this time.
*cassette clicks off*