Kem Joy Ukwu
Kem Joy Ukwu earned her bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University and her master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her work has been published in the Blue Lake Review. As a proud native New Yorker and Bronxite, she currently lives in Bloomfield, New Jersey with her husband.
I turn twenty-five today. My birthday party will start later this evening. If my mother were here, this party would be in her honor as well. I was born on her twenty-fifth birthday.
I was her gift, wrapped in blood and goo. It was the twenty-fifth of September when the nurse handed me over to her. She held me, looked down at my face and shook her head. That’s how my older half-sister, Chioma, recalled it. She didn’t tell me about her not wanting me. That part I figured on my own after I learned that my mother left my father, my half-sister and me the next day with a written note that said, “I’m sorry,” placed on top of ten-thousand dollars in cash. The money was her gift to me. I have yet to spend it.
It currently sits in a savings account, collecting dust and interest. My father opened the account the following day after reading that note. Chioma told me that he sat in the living room on the green fake-leather couch we still own, reading that note for the first time as if it was one of his students’ term papers. He sat on the couch for hours, Chioma insists, holding the crinkled white piece of good-bye with both hands.
“He wasted time with that note,” Chioma said years ago to me. “Like he wasted time with that woman.”
She sat down next to me on the same couch after we had returned from his service at the funeral parlor a few blocks away from St. Cornelius College, where he’d taught English. He wanted to be cremated. I insisted this to Chioma after she commented on the shame of the situation.
“The only reason, Obi, that he wanted to be cremated was because he knew there was no one back home to collect him properly.”
As far as Chioma was concerned, home was Nigeria. She was born and raised there. She referred to the fact that our father had no siblings, no parents and therefore no aunties nor uncles nor cousins. He had his first set of in-laws, and then lost them when he married my mother only one month after Chioma’s mother’s death. The falling in love part with my mother happened before Chioma’s mother passed away. That’s how Chioma likes to remember it.
We sat there on the couch, talking. Chioma said one thing and I countered. Chioma always wins. She has a beautiful talent with words. She uses them with the grace of an eagle and the ruthlessness of a dictator. She’s an attorney.
“Things will be different now.”
“Well, I had planned to move back to Lagos and live with Aunty Grace after graduation. That is no longer my plan. Someone needs to be here with you.”
“I’m old enough to take care of myself.”
“Rubbish.” One of Chioma’s favorite words. “I have connections from Swade & Marks. I can surely land a position in their New York office after I graduate. That firm is not the best, but it will be suitable for me. In the meantime, you need to work on your college applications. Which schools will you apply to?”
“Rubbish. You will apply to Cornell, NYU, and Fordham.”
“I can’t get into those schools.”
“How have your grades been?”
“I am a proud B student.”
“Daddy did not push you with your schoolwork?”
“My grades weren’t everything to him.”
“They should have been something. The first question Daddy always asked me, even before he greeted me, was how are your studies?”
I didn’t share this with Chioma—and I don’t think I ever will—but I knew why he asked her that question and why his first question to me was did you eat? He knew that she was, as they say, destined for greatness.
As for me, I didn’t know what I was destined to do, who I was ordained to be. I still don’t. And my father knew that I didn’t know. And I think he believed that I would never find the answer.
“You’re good with school stuff,” I noted.
“Well, you should be too. You need to figure out what you are going to do with your life, Obioma. I will not be here with you forever.”
I knew that to be true. And seven years later, sitting here on this green couch waiting for my party to start, I know it now. My sister’s family’s luggage waits by our front door.
. . .
I remember Chioma’s wedding. The church ceremony took place in Lagos. The event was a bright collage of yellows, purples, blues, and oranges showcased by long shirts and pants, dresses and tall headscarves that belittled gold and diamond crowns. It was, I knew, the happiest day of Chioma’s life. And not-so-ironically, the saddest of mine.
I was one of her bridesmaids. It was a special honor to wear the dark purple sundress. She sternly lectured me in her Aunt Grace’s dining area a few days before her wedding as she drank a cup of her Earl Grey tea. She sat up straight, looking through bridal magazines she’d brought from the States, even though she finished her wedding planning long ago.
“When it is your turn, you will understand.”
I laughed in response.
“Ah, that is right, no wedding for Obi. She will get married by a justice of the peace.”
“It would be cheaper. More practical, don’t you think?” I argued.
“More selfish. How could you do that? How could you not involve your family, your community?”
I shrugged and said no more. I stood, ninth in a line of ten bridesmaids and her matron of honor, looking over at her inside the church. As the sun shined at her through stain-colored windows, I knew that I was losing her, even though she was never fully mine. I only had half her blood and not even half her time.
Chioma has always been quite the independent. Soon after I was born, she returned to Nigeria to live with one of her mother’s four sisters. She attended a top-notch boarding school, staying with her Aunt Grace during vacation intervals, keeping in contact with our father by phone while he was here in the States raising me alone. She came back to the States once every couple of years to visit our father and me. She moved back here semi-permanently to attend college, but not at St. Cornelius as our father originally wanted.
She chose Fordham and often snickers with regret about not choosing Cornell instead. That was one of the many sacrifices she made to be close to her family, she laments, moving to the Bronx instead of to the land of Ivy. After graduating summa cum laude in three years instead of the classic four, she moved to Ithaca to attend law school at Cornell, making up for her unforgivable error of passing it up for undergrad. She accomplished this almost all on her own, rarely asking our father for money, even though he was always ready to provide it.
Two months after our father passed, she agreed to marry Kenechukwu Agbochukwu, a fourth-year medical student at Johns Hopkins. They met through his parents, who are friends with Chioma’s aunts. It only took a few months for her to accept that he was the one. He traveled from Baltimore to our father’s service to support Chioma, which she appreciated.
I asked Chioma if she loved him the same day I received her bridesmaid lecture in her Aunt Grace’s large estate in Lagos.
She said yes, of course.
“What about him do you love?”
“Sense,” Chioma answered simply. “The man has it. Many men waste time. Ken does not.”
Chioma was correct, Ken didn’t waste time. He proposed to Chioma only after knowing her for a few months.
And there they were, the woman who gave up Cornell once and the man with lots of sense, exchanging vows before their God and three hundred of their closest family and friends.
Her matron of honor, Lynne Okocha, the only attendant Chioma selected to wear an evening gown instead of the sundress, told me during their packed reception that she was proud of her best friend for making such a wise selection, picking Ken to be her lifelong mate.
I wanted to pointedly reply to her, “I should be wearing your gown.”
. . .
I didn’t realize until a few days later after their wedding that I wasn’t going to lose Chioma altogether just yet. She and Ken decided to move into our father’s house. Both Chioma and Ken had finished their graduate education, and it would benefit them both to begin their respective careers in law and medicine in the States, specifically New York, where they could make connections that would serve them in the long run. And most sensibly, they could live in our father’s house in White Plains and save money by not having to pay rent. That was how Chioma explained it to me at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, during her third day as Mrs. Dr. Ken Agbochukwu.
“It makes sense,” she concluded, before we said our good-byes.
I flew back to New York after that news and waited two weeks for Chioma and Ken to move in after they returned from their honeymoon in Italy. I geared up to start my college life at St. Corn’s. They offered me a full tuition scholarship to matriculate there (a sympathy token for my father’s death) and I couldn’t say no, which is what I explained to Chioma over the phone, weeks before her wedding.
“Congratulations,” she said. “Did you hear back from Cornell or NYU? Fordham?”
“No,” I lied. “Haven’t heard yet.”
“Call their admissions offices and follow up.”
“I will,” I said, knowing very well that I wouldn’t. They had all rejected me, which didn’t hurt at all as I only saw myself at St. Corn’s. But I couldn’t lie further to say that I actually got in. She would’ve slapped me with her sandpaper palms if I had been accepted to any of those schools and didn’t go. I hoped she would forget eventually, with all of her life-planning going on with Ken. But I knew better. Chioma forgets nothing.
We had one week of shared time after they returned from their honeymoon and before I moved half of my belongings to my dorm at St. Corn’s to start my freshman year.
“You living there is pure rubbish, Obi,” she said to me as I packed up my clothes in my bedroom. She stood against my door, folding her arms. “The campus is walking distance from here. What? You cannot walk to your classes?”
Of course, I could have. I walked to their campus at least every other day after our father passed, hoping to find him walking around, carrying his books by Marquez, Achebe, and his personal favorite, Austen, wearing one of his colorful sweaters and New York Yankees cap (he was the only Nigerian man I knew who loved baseball). I walked around the small campus for hours, believing it would’ve only been a matter of time before I would catch him.
“Sure I could. I could also walk to class from one of their dorms.”
“You would save money by living here.”
Save money or save sanity? I picked the latter. I zipped up our father’s suitcase and hauled it out of the room, bypassing Chioma and her floral perfume. I walked down the stairs and encountered once again their boxes and luggage, reminders to me of the true reason I wanted to live far, far (all of ten minutes) away.
I knew that I would stop by once or twice a month, not to say hello or to do laundry, but to show my face. To remind her that I existed. That this house was also mine.
. . .
Chioma has an eye for redecoration. She rarely allows herself to watch television, she disdains the uselessness of it, but in the very few occasions she has turned on the flat-screen in the living room, the channel always featured a show about home makeovers. She and Ken wanted to renovate the entire house to reflect their style. They started with their bedroom. Then the kitchen.
Our kitchen was in need of repair. Cracks decorated the tile floor, and the chipped white paint on the walls was friendly, always greeting me after entry. Chioma always complained about them to my father during her visits when he was alive and then to me after he passed. It bothered her enough to offer snippy comments but not enough to do something about it. Until she got married.
I came to visit one weekend during my freshman year and entered the kitchen and got lost.
“Welcome!” shouted the mahogany cabinets and granite countertops. The old appliances were now brand new concoctions that looked too beautiful to be actually defined, let alone used. I stood, trying to convince myself that I was standing in my house.
“Beautiful and clean. That is how everything should be,” Chioma stated as she entered the kitchen behind me, startling me.
“It’s quite lovely,” I said. “How long did it take for you to do this?”
“Two weeks. It should have taken three, but we paid extra for less time.”
“You know me well.”
Chioma left. Still stunned, I smiled. I felt like I had won something without playing.
I decided to sleep over that evening and after waking up the next morning, strolling down the stairs to the living room, my eyes caught a wall. I had never seen that blue wall bare. Dust and lint outlined the shape of a sofa. I paused and then continued my steps.
I walked into euphoria where Chioma and Ken were eating French toast and scrambled eggs on plates I had never seen before. Perhaps new china.
“Good morning, Obioma,” Chioma greeted. Ken looked up from reading The New York Times and nodded towards my direction, his usual hello.
There was a time that I resented her calling me Obioma. That’s my middle name. It means “good heart” in Igbo, Chioma’s native language that I have yet to master (or learn). “Chioma” means “good God.” Chioma has often joked to me that you can never have a good heart without a good God. I have repeatedly wished that she would address me by my first name, Colleen. After time, it has annoyed me less and less. I think it’s because I’m grateful that she addresses me at all. But when I heard “Obioma,” after not seeing our couch that morning, my heart didn’t feel good—in effect, it burned.
“Where’s the couch?”
“We gave it away this morning,” Chioma answered, taking a sip of her orange juice. “It was too ugly to sell.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Ken is going to renovate the living room.”
My arms began to tremble. I wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her like salt over those perfectly assembled eggs on her unblemished china.
“I want it back.”
“You want that old thing? What for?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “You should’ve asked me first.”
“Ken knows what would look good here.”
My hand shot up, my pointer finger pointing at Chioma’s doctor-man. And then, it came out.
“This is not his home!”
Ken folded up his newspaper. He stood up from his stool by the counter and walked out of the kitchen.
Chioma is the most beautiful when she looks like she wants to kill someone. Her dark chocolate skin and thick lips—gifts from her mother—look nothing like my light cappuccino-colored face, sprinkled with the lightest of brown freckles: gifts, I assume, from mine.
The only features we share are our father’s eyes—big, dark brown saucers. And at that moment, they were paper-cutting me in two.
“What is his is mine and what is mine is his,” said Chioma, her voice low and even. How I wished she had yelled instead. I could’ve charged her next delivery to pure frustration, rather than an icy, numbing truth.
“If you had a husband, Obi, you would understand that.”
She meant to say if I had someone, anyone.
The next morning after I said the un-say-able in their new kitchen, I noticed the couch had returned. I knew it wasn’t Chioma’s doing. She doesn’t believe in take-backs.
I thought Ken brought it back because I scared him with my to-hell-with-you statement. I think what I said, despite my callous release, made sense to him. He knew this house wasn’t his place of permanence. It was just somewhere to live for the time needed. Why waste money on additional renovations when it was only a matter of time when they would move back to Nigeria? He probably wanted to thank me.
I entered the kitchen, where he sat by the counter on the same stool from the previous morning, reading The New York Times again, Sunday edition. He nodded towards me. I nodded back. I noticed there was no cup of coffee by him, so I decided to pour him some. I grabbed a Cornell mug from the brand-new cupboard and grabbed the pot with already-brewed coffee resting in it. I filled the mug slowly, wondering what he was thinking.
I placed my caffeinated apology on the counter next to him.
“I already had some, thank you,” he said. “You can leave that for Chioma, she should be downstairs shortly.”
I left the mug and walked out of the house, through the back door at the other end of the kitchen. I didn’t want to see Chioma kiss her husband’s cheek, ignoring the Cornell mug with steaming wake-up juice.
. . .
During the spring semester of my senior year, I called Chioma to wish her a happy birthday. It was then that she told me she was five months pregnant.
“Twins. Boys. Such a blessing,” Chioma said.
“Congratulations,” I said. I think I had an idea she was expecting. Last time I saw her, two months before, she looked a bit heavier and was annoyingly joyful.
“You are going to be an aunty of two. Praise God.”
“Really, Chioma,” I said, trying to pitch my voice higher. “That’s wonderful.”
“I do not know how this will affect my chances of making partner.” It was Chioma’s goal to move back to Nigeria as a full-fledged partner at her firm and start up an office there. Oil production and such, lots of opportunities, she said. She would make that firm global, she insisted.
“You do good work, I’m sure,” I said.
“With twins, I will have to cut back in hours. Unless I find suitable daycare by the time they arrive.”
“I don’t have a job lined up yet, I can watch your babies until you make daycare arrangements.”
Chioma waited a beat. “Thank you, Obi. That is a fantastic idea. Your help would be very much appreciated.”
“My pleasure. Happy Birthday,” I said. I thought I was an idiot then after I said I would care for her newborns. I realize now why I offered my gift. Time is such a wonderful present. The value is only noticed when it’s lost.
On and off for almost three years, I cared for her sons. I wiped their bottoms and changed their diapers. I fed them, bathed them, soothed them, and taught them how to give high-fives. Anytime Chioma or Ken was at work, building their careers, setting up bricks for their empires, I held down this half-renovated fort.
And I loved it. Much to my own surprise as I’m usually not a fan of children.
With the exception of a part-time babysitter who watched them while I worked at my part-time job at a local bookstore three days a week, I was here. I like to think that I left a mark on my nephews but now I’m sure they’ll forget me. I’ll become that Post-It® note on a cover of a book, there but not a part of the story.
I try not to think of my nephews when they’re not standing in front of me.
. . .
My birthday party will start soon. I realize this after I look at the time on my outdated cell phone, one that doesn’t have a camera and doesn’t flip open. It’s quite old, but I haven’t yet found the desire to upgrade it.
Chioma is excited about this party; it was her idea and she planned it. Invitees include Ken and the twins and a few of her friends from her days at Fordham.
My three college friends are also on the invite list, but can’t attend. I don’t take it personally as all of them live far away: one’s in Arizona, another lives in England, and the other lives in Philadelphia.
Chioma stressed to me that I should create a Facebook© page to help me keep in contact with them. “The application is highly useful,” she told me two months ago after she announced that she, Ken, and the twins were moving to Nigeria permanently.
We were in our kitchen. She manned the counter by the stove, preparing dinner. I sat by the kitchen counter island in the middle, flipping through a beauty magazine, pretending that I wasn’t fully present in the conversation.
“It will be a wonderful way for us to keep in touch. You would know everything that is going on with the boys, Ken, me,” Chioma said as she chopped onions.
“Everyone else would know too,” I countered.
“Yes. That is why it is efficient.”
I remained silent, choosing to focus on the comforting, enticing smell of the stew she was preparing. The aroma, fresh and stout with basil, oregano, and curry, filled up the kitchen. I promised silently then that I’d tell her how much joy eating her stew gives me before she leaves for Nigeria. Now, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll let her know on Facebook.
“I’m going to sign the house over to you,” Chioma said, placing the onion slices in the pot. A declaration. As if she was going to pass on a mantle or a crown.
The house was already mine. Mine and hers. But now, it would be just my own. I should’ve had a celebratory thought about that, but I didn’t.
“When are you leaving?”
“We bought tickets for the twentieth but we are changing our flights for the twenty-sixth.”
“Do not be silly. We will not leave before your birthday,” Chioma replied. “Actually, we are going to throw a party for you.”
My next question was going to be a repeated “Why?” but I dropped it, not wanting to sound ungrateful.
I do feel grateful, sitting here in the living room, looking at all of the decorations. Purple balloons filled with helium, tied with white strings, float by the entryway into the kitchen and the stairs. My eyes make my way back to their luggage, waiting idly by the front door.
They’ll leave tomorrow morning. I decide to leave now.
I stand up, grab my keys from the end table, and walk to the front door. My steps have always been light. That’s why I don’t worry that Chioma, Ken and the twins, all upstairs, might hear me. They won’t. And all’s well.
. . .
I walk to St. Corn’s. In late September, there is much buzz and restless activity on campus. The academic year has recently started and students are walking about. Two students are throwing a football around on the main quad. Daylight is ending, and the sky is layered with stripes of orange and purple. The air is still warm, as if summer is a houseguest and doesn’t want to leave quite yet.
I grow jealous. It’s been three years since I’ve graduated and that should have been enough time to get over that I’m no longer a student. I want to walk around here as if I still have options, possibilities, friends that I see every day, an active social life, excitement about my future. I remind myself that twenty-five is not old.
I walk to Crest Hall, my dormitory during my last two years there. It’s also the building where a plaque was placed in the lobby, one that honored my father. He was a superstar of sorts here. His colleagues adored him. I knew this because many of them, who taught me in several classes, told me. As I walk, I now realize why he loved and needed this place. It was because it loved and needed him back.
I wonder if he ever felt that way with anyone outside of here. I guess he hadn’t. Maybe not even with me. Perhaps I had reminded him too much of my mother. I do share her first name. I never asked him why he named me after her. And I would never ask Chioma now that he’s dead. Her response—I’m certain—would be, “Because the man did not have sense.”
I wonder if I should be brave and ask her when I return home, just to see if I’m correct. I change my mind, knowing how she reacts whenever the topic of my mother comes up.
Chioma’s mother was perfect. I know this from the large portrait of her that hangs on the wall above the stairway. Chioma placed it there after she and Ken moved in, along with photos of her aunts and cousins, pictures of Ken’s immediate and extended family, and photos of the boys.
Chioma’s mother wears a red collared blouse in the picture. Her small, round afro caps her round head like a glove. Her blood colored lips match her blouse and they are smiling. Not widely, just enough to show satisfaction. Just how Chioma smiles.
As I open the door to Crest Hall, I wonder if I should steal our father’s plaque to hang it next to Chioma’s mother. I decide against it as I see a security guard sitting behind a desk. He asks to see my student ID.
I balk. We never needed to show our IDs to the guards when I was a student.
“I just want to hang out in the main lounge, watch some television.”
The guard waits.
The guard shrugs.
I leave the dorm. As I’m walking, I think about my father. I think about Chioma. A realization hits me, overwhelming me. I know what I want to do. My decision is a surrendering, but also a step—or leap—forward. As I reach the brick campus gates, I know where I’m going next. I hope that I’m not too late and that their doors are still open.
. . .
It’s one o’clock in the morning. I step inside the house and the kitchen light is on. Fear hits me. I walk towards the light and much to my relief, no one is there. Just presents on top of the counter. I take Chioma’s gift. I recognize it right way because it’s the only box perfectly wrapped with purple ribbons. As I bring it upstairs with me, I notice that all of their hanged photos on the stairway wall are gone.
. . .
I wake up. I look over to my alarm clock. Six fifteen. Their cab will arrive at ten. I close my eyes and nestle my head further onto my pillow. I let Chioma believe that I’m in a deep slumber when she opens the door an hour later to check in on me. I wonder if she knows that I know that she has been doing that for years, at night and in the morning, opening my door slightly to see if I’m resting. I always hear the creak of the door and even when I’m sleeping, it always wakes me. And I always keep my eyes closed.
She closes my door. I hear her say to Ken, “Obi is sleeping, I do not want to wake her.”
“She knows that we are leaving today,” Ken replies. “She should be up.”
“She will rise soon,” Chioma asserts. “She is not daft.”
I hear my nephews squealing, being their jubilant selves. Their noises remind me of when Chioma and I discussed their names when she was eight months pregnant. It was the day after my graduation from St. Corn’s. I was sitting on the couch, watching television. When Chioma sat down next to me, I immediately changed the channel to some show about first-time homeowners.
“Ken wants to give them American names,” she said as she nestled her butt on a cushion. “Matthew and Paul.”
“They’re also biblical names,” I pointed out.
“Yes, they are. Well noted.”
I nodded. After a few moments of silence, an idea landed in my mind, softly like a feather. This idea, I knew, was beautiful.
“Why don’t you and Ken name one of them after Dad?”
“Dee-mee-tree-us,” Chioma said, as if she was trying on the name like a pair of jeans, to see if it fit. Then came her verdict.
“I do not prefer it.”
Matthew and Paul were born a month later. And three years later, they have grown into mini-men, with minds as strong as their mother’s and as whip-smart as their father’s. They know how to read, how to use the toilet, and of course, how to say “No.” Only to me, of course. Dare they say no to their mother? No one says no to Chioma.
I would’ve broken that rule if she asked me to move with her to Nigeria when she first told me they were leaving. I would’ve said a long, drawn-out, humor-intended “no.”
She didn’t ask. And I didn’t want her to. I wanted a threat instead. I had hoped she would order me with her voice, iced with a snarl, to pack my stuff and move with them. She would’ve done so to Ken and her boys if they indicated in any way that they had no interest in moving. And she would’ve done this rightfully so, for they belong to her. As I remove my comforter from my body and sit up on my bed, I allow myself to accept, like a failing grade, that I don’t.
But that doesn’t matter, not anymore, because I have also allowed myself to accept that I still want to be close to them, even if by physical space alone, even though they no longer need me, or may have never needed me.
My hardwood floor is cold. My feet tell me that they’re unhappy as I stand up and walk over to my bedroom door. I open it and Chioma stands there, waiting.
I expect a comment about last night. My disrespectful no-show. My rude absence.
“I prepared breakfast,” Chioma says. “We will eat when you are ready.”
I want to tell her what I did yesterday. Instead, I say, “Your stew is wonderful.”
Chioma raises an eyebrow. “I did not make stew,” she says. “I made eggs.”
She turns around and walks down the stairs.
. . .
Five minutes to ten and the cab is full with their luggage. Chioma and Ken decided not to take any of their new furniture with them. They, with their sons, are moving to a house Ken’s parents built for them in Abuja. The house is fully furnished and there’s no need to bring anything more than clothes and other essentials, Chioma told me some time ago. They’ll travel to Lagos first to stay with her Aunt Grace and then they’ll make their trek to Nigeria’s capital.
I’m dressed with the clothes I had originally planned to wear for my party the night before, black pants and a dark green V-neck sweater with gold fringes on the sleeves. My black high-heeled shoes complete the ensemble. I’m ready for a party but right now I’m not going anywhere but the front porch. I welcome this irony.
The boys are nestled in their car-seats in the backseat of the yellow mini-van cab. I choose not to hug them good-bye. I tell myself that I will see them very soon.
I wave to them and smile. I say, “Be good.”
Ken stands by the cab. I really don’t know what to say to him. I could say, “Take care of Chioma,” but he already does that. Even “good-bye” seems disingenuous. All I say to him, as I stand on the porch and Chioma stands beside me, is “Good luck.”
Another useless thing to say, he doesn’t need it. Neither does his wife. I know this as I look at her. She turns to face me.
Her straight-permed hair offers a hilarious contrast to my never-say-die reddish-brown afro. I should laugh out loud from this observation but I don’t feel like it. I notice the air suddenly becoming cool, and I place my hands in my pockets to warm them up. I recall yesterday’s warm weather and wonder why Mother Nature made this change now instead of later today or tomorrow.
“I plan to wire $500 every month to your account, starting in October, when we’re settled in Abuja,” Chioma says to me.
“Do not ask me that rubbish question. It is not much, but hopefully with your income, it will suffice to assist you with bills and other expenses.”
I want to tell her to keep her money, that I don’t want it. But saying no wouldn’t change anything, she’d do it anyway.
“The money will be wired to the bank with your first savings account,” she says.
“I don’t use that account.”
“You will start.”
I shrug and accept my defeat. I try to keep my mood light by admiring the orange leaves falling from the tree by our porch. Their varied shades are bright, vibrant, hopeful.
“No gratitude is needed. It is the right thing to do.”
I nod and wait. Her face changes. She inhales and then exhales. Her cheeks perk up and she smiles at me.
“I love you,” she says.
I freeze. It’s the first time she says it to me. She knows that I know this.
I relax my shoulders and return her smile. “I bought a ticket for a flight to Lagos leaving next week.”
Chioma maintains her smile. “It would be fantastic to have you visit us.”
I clear the fear dangling in my throat. “It’s a one-way. I was thinking that I could live with you. Help you with the boys. Or I could move into an apartment close by. I would come back here eventually to sell the house but living in Nigeria close to you would be good for me. Don’t you think so?”
Chioma’s face returns to the one I know. “No, I do not. It is not a smart idea. We will discuss it later. Call me.”
I feel like scalding hot water has spilled on me. Pain stops me from offering a rebuttal.
Chioma turns and walks to the cab, where Ken is standing, holding the door open to let her in. I watch Chioma step into the cab and seat herself next to her boys. Ken shuts the door and walks around to the front passenger seat. He gets in and shuts the door, and the cab drives off.
I turn around slowly to face my house. I enter it and close the door. I take off my shoes and walk to the living room. I see Chioma’s wrapped gift sitting on my green monstrosity. I brought it downstairs earlier this morning, hoping I would open it in front of her.
I take the box and rip off its shiny wrapping. I open the box to find a phone, one that you can type with. One of those elite, fancy types. Also in the box are a charger and a manual. I nod and think to myself, she is efficient.
I still feel the burn from Chioma’s last words to me, though the sting no longer hurts. It’s as if the sharp pain is freeing me from something I never knew I was trapped in. I can’t pinpoint the feeling and I don’t care to. I run with it.
I will go to the mall to have my present activated with my phone number. Before I do that, I will return to the copy center there to use one of their computers, perhaps the same one I used to purchase my flight yesterday after I left St. Cornelius. I will cancel my ticket and cancel my Facebook page that I created last night.
Then, I will go to the furniture store. Using money from my never-touched savings account, I will re-decorate this place—my home—and all of the rooms in it.
Except the kitchen. I will leave it alone. If I never see my half-sister again, I have decided that the perfect mahogany cabinets and shiny tiled floors will efficiently act and serve in her place.