When I was a child, I was desperate for nice things, the kind of things I imagined people in Upper Avenue had: a pink princess dress that would spin with ease when I swirled; shoes in every color, all shiny patent leather; white lace pantyhose that I would wear with everything; a pink Alice headband with a large bow; long silky hair sew-ins that my mother would braid every night.
Instead, the things I had included the following:
- A dress passed down from my sister, Raalu, who was already in Class 6 at secondary school. The dress was not only out of fashion but had a huge orange stain that my mother insisted was part of the original design and not from Fanta.
- Long lace socks with gaping holes. They had to be folded down to hide the holes.
- A naked rubber doll with holes where her eyes, nose, and mouth should have been. Raalu or the girl at church whose mother had passed it down to my family must have drilled the holes. I tried to sew dresses for her, but the seams always came off and caused her to look even more deprived, so she stayed naked.
- A black shoe with missing heel caps; they clucked whenever I walked into Sunday school, and everyone would glare at me because I was always late, thanks to my mother’s Volvo that could never go up the hill by the state university and we’d have to push it into the parking lot and walk the rest of the way to church—all four miles of it.
We lived in Enugu, on the fringes of a rich neighborhood we called Upper Avenue. Raalu and I walked through its shaded streets on our way back from school. I took in the details of each house we passed. The large compounds. A pink tricycle. A properly dressed doll with all its hair still in place. An automated toy car. A well-inflated football. A basketball hoop.
My favorite was a white house with a white brick wall and a gate so large I couldn’t stop wondering how many people it took to install it. There was no bigger house in Upper Avenue. The wall was so high we couldn’t see the compound, yet I lingered when we walked by. I imagined what would happen if I jumped over the wall and finally saw what was beyond. I said this to Raalu one day and she looked at me like I had gone crazy.
“That’s childish and stupid,” she said as though her turning sixteen and growing breasts suddenly made her my mother.
Raalu didn’t care about those things. She dreamed of inheriting our house with all its displaced roof sheets and broken floors and falling fences and unpainted walls blackened from dirt. My mother made promises of one day finally fixing the shaky doors, the windows dangling from one hinge, and the broken concrete floors. But my dreams did not include our house that smelled of smoke from the kerosene stove and lanterns. I wanted to shit in toilets that didn’t ferry back the smell from sewer tanks, and it wasn’t until my mother’s long-lost brother visited us from Canada that I understood how I could have everything I ever wanted.
Uncle KC returned to Nigeria with a wife and child in tow after eight years of silence. The last time my mother had seen him was at the airport, right before he boarded the Concord flight to Amsterdam and then KLM to Canada. My mother told the story of his leaving in details. Down to the green, yellow and blue patterned kaftan he was wearing and the samsonite bag that hung from his shoulder. My father had just died from kidney disease, and my mother, having sold everything to pay the outstanding medical bills, had nothing left. She hung so much hope on her brother’s quest for economic liberation in Canada. And he had promised to send her money as soon as he got a job. He would take care of her, he said. But she never heard from him again. Her faith turned into trepidation and then anger.
So, when he arrived without announcement all those years later, my mother stood at the porch and glared at him as he stepped out of a mint Peugeot 504. He smiled and waved as though it was just yesterday he last saw her. He looked at our house barely standing on its foundation, and said, ‘I didn’t know it was this bad Kaka.’ My mother’s eyes began to water but there were no hugs.
My uncle sunk his hands into his pockets and walked around the house, inspecting our yard covered in stinky compost. His white wife held their little daughter’s hand and followed him everywhere he went. Lilian was only seven, two years younger than me. I eyed her silky hair tied at the top of her head. If I had hair like hers, I would let it pour over my shoulders, I thought. She wore a beige A-line dress made from satin that looked nothing like the satin material my mother bought every year to sew our Christmas dresses. Hers looked heavy and barely moved as she walked.
I looked down at my own dress, a see-through material that now had threads dangling from it. Once the most beautiful dress I owned two Christmases ago, now so small for me that I wore a skirt underneath it. Raalu stood next to me, barefoot, and a week-long uncombed afro. My mother, thankfully, had dressed up to go to the market: she was wearing a brown skirt and matching blouse and smelled of talcum. I smiled, pleased that we didn’t appear totally disastrous.
Uncle KC looked at the Volvo parked on the side of the house and smiled at his sister. “Jeez, you kept my old girl running all these years!” He burst into a happy laugh, but no one joined in. His wife smiled, undecided about whose side to be on. Raalu’s eyes met mine briefly, and we both looked at our mother. Her lips were quivering visibly. We both knew an explosion was imminent.
My uncle headed to the backyard and grunted at the abandoned chicken house my mother had built when she thought she might run a poultry business, but a bush baby had broken in and killed all her week-old chicks. He eyed the old paint buckets stacked by the fence and raised his eyebrows, but, again, no one offered an answer. The buckets were from when my mother produced bar soaps and powder detergents that she sold to people in our neighborhood until she realized she wasn’t making anything out of it. There were also plastic kegs from when she thought she might supply honey to homes in Upper Avenue, but no one opened their doors to her, let alone asked what was in the old Schnapp bottles.
Raalu and I walked behind everyone. Like me, she must have expected our uncle to greet us with more enthusiasm, but he seemed interested in everything else but us.
“He was embarrassed,” my mother would explain later. “Why won’t he be? He abandoned us.”
“What’s with the compost?” my uncle asked now, and for the first time glanced at Raalu and me.
“Mum’s planting greens so she can sell at the market.” Raalu quickly answered, perhaps stunned by the sudden attention directed at us.
“Hmm,” my uncle said. “But how lucrative is that? You must –”
“Eight years, Nnamdi,” my mother snapped. “You left us to suffer!”
“It was not my intention,” my uncle said. “I told you, I had a really rough time.”
Finally, my uncle wrapped his arms around her, and after a brief hesitation, she hugged him back. My uncle sighed and looked at us. Raalu took my hand and we headed into the house. His wife and Lilian followed us but stopped at the door, perhaps taken aback by how crowded our living room was with old newspapers and church bulletins. There was a shelf where our mother kept good china and wine cups from before my father died.
“Uhh nice,” my uncle’s wife sang and walked to the shelf.
Raalu and I sat on the only chairs. Lilian waited until her mother stepped away from the shelf and then they sat together on the small sofa across from us. It was difficult to know where to set our gaze. My uncle’s wife caught me staring at her daughter’s hair, and she smiled. “You two could go out to the porch and play if you like,” she said.
Outside, every child in our neighborhood had gathered in the street. They must have seen the car. They all stared at Lilian, and she immediately grew shy and asked that we go back inside, but I insisted we stayed.
“They like you,” I said, as though I cared about her unease. I was more concerned about keeping her there and showing her off. Although, I thought to myself that had I been her, I would never have worn a beige or brown dress but instead a pink one, or yellow, or sky blue, something bright enough to ensure my presence was never mistaken. But even in her drab dress, she was half white and from abroad and thus worth displaying.
Later, the children would ask me what abroad was like. Is it true it was always cold there? Did they really have cars that could fly like KITT in Knight Rider? Do they really let dogs into their homes? During his short visit, I never got to discuss with my uncle any details about his life abroad, but I answered the children’s questions as though I knew the right answers. Yes, it was always cold. Of course cars flew in Canada. And yes, yes, dogs and all sorts of other animals lived with people abroad.
My Uncle stayed for dinner, and where he smiled and turned down the thickest egusi soup I had ever seen my mother cook, his wife ate and sipped from a glass of water after swallowing each tiny ball of garri. “Delicious, delicious. Wow. You made this in 30 minutes? Delicious.” She spoke in an accent that came out like there was water in her mouth. My sister and I exchanged smiles and I nearly burst into laughter. We would mimic her delicious, delicious for weeks to come. And whenever we ate garri, we would hang our hands in the air, then cry out, “Do you have soap?” as we sniffed our fingers. Even our mother too would crumple to the floor in hysterical laughter.
My uncle and his family stayed until it was dark and then they got up to leave. Outside, my mother pulled him away from his wife. “You need a proper wife,” she said. “Will this one take care of you?”
My uncle seemed alarmed by this. “Don’t be so backwards Kaka. Besides, do you know what this woman has done for me?”
My mother rolled her eyes, but she hugged the woman when she stretched out her hands and even chuckled when the woman blew kisses in her ears. We stood and watched them drive away with the echo of my uncle’s promise hanging in the air. They would fly back to Canada that night, but he would be back, he had said. “Until I see you,” my mother had simply responded as she tucked away the bundle of money he gave her into her purse.
Abroadness became my obsession. I recognized it as the key to having all the nice things I wanted. I watched movies intently, paying attention to what the children were wearing, how their houses were decorated. I dreamed of living in a house with walls covered with wallpaper, of having green fields in my backyard. When Raalu and I walked home from school, I sniffed for abroadness outside the Upper Avenue houses. I started to guess which of the kids who stared at us from their large windows had visited America, or London, or Canada. I identified this from whatever was in their yard. A rose plant that could have only come from outside Nigeria, a shiny car, a lawn so well-manicured it clearly had been mowed by a machine from abroad, a toy we had never seen at the market.
So I almost died when my uncle’s wife called to say they were making plans to bring me over. They weren’t going to have any more children, and I would make a good companion for their daughter. My mother was displeased that my uncle wasn’t concerned about having a boy, but she waited until she got off the phone to express this displeasure.
“It’s that white woman! I know it’s her idea not to give him an heir,” my mother bellowed.
“But what does that have to do with Ifu going abroad?” Raalu snapped, forgetting who she was talking to.
Our mother glared at her but said nothing. Instead, she pulled me into her arms and hugged me so tight. I was startled by the gesture and kept my arms by my sides. When she let me go, she held my face close to hers.
“I always knew you were great,” she said. “I knew it when you slipped right out of me without me knowing. The doctor had to hold you up to prove to me you were already born.” She burst into laughter and hugged me again.
“Now you can do something with that big brain of yours,” she said. “And don’t you go forgetting us like your uncle.”
That night I was too excited to fall asleep. I dreamed of what my life would be like living abroad, but then it occurred to me that my mother may have misunderstood. Her conversations with her brother’s wife had hardly been communicative. My mother had a thick accent, and so did this woman. Their conversations had included a lot of smiles and nods where responses were expected. I had found it funny, until then, when my life depended on understanding precisely what that woman had said to my mother. I shook Raalu awake.
“Do you think Mummy heard it right? What if she misheard what the woman said?”
Raalu hissed. “This is why you woke me?” She shoved me away from her and went back to sleep.
The next day, I told everyone on our street I was going abroad anyway. Their eyes rounded as they listened to my version of what my uncle’s wife had said. They wanted me to learn to speak English properly and French, if possible, I explained. They would pay for me to go to a private school, and when I was ready, possibly in six months, they would then bring me over. Everyone gasped in awe and jealousy while I grinned like a goat. I told people at church too, and at the market while my mother’s shopping bag sat on my head, the weight of it nearly drilling me into the ground. I told it at a party on our street while the birthday boy took photos with a tray of jollof rice set before him. I told it even in my dreams, and it wasn’t until Kelechi scoffed and laughed at my story that I could no longer find the words to tell it.
I met Kelechi on my first day at Great Vine, the private school my uncle paid for me to go to. She lived in the Upper Avenue neighborhood. Everyone in my new school lived in Upper Avenue or GRA, where the school was located. As my mother drove me to school that first day, I stared at one mansion after another, imagining what my uncle’s home in Canada would look like. Would it have a flower garden out front with a paved pathway from the gate to the front door? Would it have trees with birds chirping in them? A parrot on the front porch, maybe? Someone to man the gate? A chef? A maid? A king-size canopy bed in my bedroom?
When my mother dropped me at school, she told me I was to take the bus home. She could not afford to close her meat shop—her only business venture that sometimes actually enriched our soups with meat—before 5. She took my hand and tugged as she gave me extensive instructions on how to spot potential abductors and dubious men. I nodded, hoping I would recognize roforofo eyes when I saw them.
My new school had four large buildings built from red bricks. One of the buildings was the same size as the entirety of my former school. The grounds were properly landscaped with designated areas for everything: walking, parking, playing, reading. I felt the happiness that had coursed through me all week harden into a ball and drop down to my lower belly. Will I make any friends? Will anybody like me? My whole body began to itch, and I did everything not to scratch. I blamed it on the khaki uniform, on the students who eyed me as they walked past me into the front building, on the blazing morning sun. I decided my uncle had made a terrible mistake and what I needed to do was skip this step and head abroad right away. But I continued to put one foot in front of the other, fueled by all the things I imagined my mother would do if I didn’t.
At the front desk, I was sent to the principal’s office to get a key card that would let me into my classroom building, and it was there I met Kelechi. I wasn’t sure why she was at the principal’s office that morning, but when I walked in, the bald man behind the desk looked away from her and smiled at me.
“Good! I wanted you two to meet. This is Ifunanya Ikeogu,” the man said, introducing me to Kelechi. “And this is Kelechi,” he said.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, but I couldn’t look up from the new brown plastic sandals my mother had bought me the previous weekend.
“Ifunanya transferred from a public school,” he said unnecessarily.
I nodded, finally looking up.
“She’s only with us for a term. She’s going to join her uncle in Canada soon, am I right?” the principal said, the smile never leaving his face. It should have been comforting, but it was bizarre the way his lips remained widely apart, never narrowing.
Kelechi examined me curiously and I stared back at her. Her hair was woven into single braids with pink beads. Her pinafore and shirt were immaculately ironed, perhaps by a professional laundry service. She wore leather sandals, the same pattern as mine, but less shiny, much less cheap I presumed.
“Oh, Canada, really?” Kelechi said.
“Yes,” I said.
“You like that?” she asked, nodding at the book my mother had given me that morning. Pleased by my obsession with novels, my mother always bought me used books..
I looked at the book with its thick cover hanging from a thread. “I haven’t read it,” I said, and she looked away as though uninterested.
The principal said, “You two are in Grade 5A. You should walk to your class together.”
I walked cautiously behind Kelechi, and when we entered our classroom, she abandoned me at the door and went to her desk in the back. I stood with my hands clasped behind my back, a pose my mother said portrayed humility. I hoped my classmates, unlike Kelechi, would approve of me. Perhaps I’d get invited to birthdays at Upper Avenue. Maybe I would finally get to watch a movie on those oversize televisions. There was a ruckus in the back, and I raised my eyes. Kelechi had asked the boy next to her to move, and she dragged the newly vacated desk closer to her own. She gestured at me to sit, then began to flip through a book.
I began to walk over to the desk, avoiding the eyes of my classmates which seemed to ask: Who the hell are you? Suddenly, I did not want to sit next to Kelechi. There was something about the way everyone looked at me that told me that they did not like Kelechi, and her wanting me to sit next to her had caused the class to bestow me with the same sentiments. But I could also sense that shunning Kelechi would be fighting the worse enemy.
When the teacher came in, the displaced student reported the unfair takeover of his position, and the teacher marched toward us. But before the teacher could get a word out, Kelechi cried, “He’s lying, I asked him if he could move, and he agreed!”
“That’s not true!” the boy said.
“It’s true, I asked him.” Kelechi’s eyes filled with tears, and she looked like she might begin to wail.
Her once beautiful face morphed into a round red potato with dimples. She shook her head with each word she uttered, and the beads on her braids flew from one side of her face to the other. I found myself worried that one might strike her eye and blind her. Won’t that make an exciting story, I thought. On my first day of school, an Upper Avenuer was blinded trying to get me to sit next to her.
The teacher eventually gave up and pleaded with the boy to accept his new position. Kelechi winked at me as the teacher walked away. I looked around the classroom and every eye I met glared back. All hope I’d had of them inviting me to their parties was gone as quick as it had come. I knew my fate had been decided—Kelechi was going to be my only friend.
Kelechi threw a book at my desk and said, “Have you read this? You should read it.”
When I looked down at the book, my face reflected back to me from its cover. I had never held a new book before. I resisted the urge to take it to my nose and sniff. Kelechi was staring at me, and I smiled and said, “Thanks. I’ve read one of her books before.”
I hadn’t. I had never heard of Franklin W. Dixon.
After school, a black Peugeot 504 pulled up for Kelechi and she asked if I had no one to pick me up. I lied that my mother was out of town and couldn’t get me. “I’m going to take a taxi,” I lied again.
“Get in the car,” she said and climbed in without waiting for my answer. I got in behind the driver and, like Kelechi, greeted him by saying “Hello”—as one would an age mate—rather than the “Good afternoon” my mother had drilled into me as the appropriate way to greet older people. The driver nodded in response and pursed his lips, perhaps annoyed by our lack of manners. Kelechi didn’t seem to care, so I decided not to either and leaned back into the leather seat.
The car smelled like air freshener and was so cold I wrapped my arms around my chest.
Kelechi eyed me. “Put down your hands please. That looks very bush,” she said.
I tucked my hands between my legs and did everything to keep my body from shaking. I hadn’t been in many cars, and I had always felt sure that the ripped seats in my mother’s car were not the norm. But nothing could have prepared me for the luxurious car. The leather seat slid smoothly beneath my buttocks. There were cupholders between the seats where a glass of orange juice had been placed for Kelechi. The driver turned on the radio and classical music came on. I didn’t know what to do with it. Nod? Sway? It was so different from the Fela and Onyeka Ownenu my mother sometimes played from our turntable. As we left the school gates, I waited for someone to ask me where I lived and, when they didn’t, I decided I would walk home from her house.
When we pulled up at her house, I almost said, Oh, I know this place! It was the biggest house in upper avenue. I itched to finally see what was beyond the white brick walls. A man opened the gates and the car rolled through. On both sides of the paved driveway were hibiscus and rose bushes and pots with flowers I had never seen before. Small trees lined the wall. There was a carport with two black SUVs parked in it. No toys littered the compound. Everything in the yard was deliberately placed. Sculptures, a fountain in a small roundabout in the middle of the driveway, birdfeeders hanging from the trees.
When the car came to a stop, Kelechi got out without saying a word and I followed her.
At the large front door, which dwarfed us, she turned to me, adjusted my pinafore, and then powdered my face with talcum from her backpack. I suddenly became aware of how ridiculous my cornrows looked. Raalu had hurriedly weaved them the night before with nothing but a dying kerosene lamp illuminating the room.
“Stand tall and keep your back straight,” Kelechi said, then led me into the house.
We walked through wide hallways lined with paintings and art dangling from the roof. There were more rooms than I could count, all dark and seemingly hardly used. The rooms were all furnished with oversize chairs. I imagined one of them in our living room and almost laughed out loud at how ridiculous it would look. My mother would hate how much space it would take up. We could barely fit a sofa and two small chairs. Her house was not as grand as those I had seen in the movies with nearly every piece of furniture glittering and shimmering. I was awestruck, but not in the way that would cause me to throw my mouth ajar. They didn’t have high ceilings and big chandeliers. Not even a TV I could see. I was going to have something much better. I Imagined my Uncle’s house in Canada would be much more beautiful. I imagined everything was better abroad.
“Let’s go see my mother,” she said, and led me down the hall into a large living room which, for a change, had a lot of light flooding in from the windows. From where we stood, we could see into the dining room, where a woman wearing an apron set the table for one.
Kelechi stared at the lone plate. “Mum didn’t come back?” she asked.
“She called and said she had an emergency meeting. She’ll be back on Sunday,” the woman said, barely looking up as she set down two covered dishes then adjusted the table runner..
Unperturbed by the news, Kelechi shrugged. “I’ll eat in my room.”
Upstairs, Kelechi’s room followed the theme of the rest of the house: large room with large furniture. On her bed and on the sofa were more pillows than we had in our entire house. Out the window was a Seventh Day Adventist church. I wondered what Kelechi thought of the view. I wouldn’t like it. My mother had raised us to hate any church but the Anglican Church. My father had died because a Pentecostal pastor had sworn with his life that his prayers could heal him, causing my father to turn his back on the Anglican God. He would not have died had we held on to our faith, my mother always insisted.
“I have to go,” I said. “My sister doesn’t like it when I’m late from school.”
Kelechi raised her eyebrows.
“I have chores,” I explained. Surely, she too had chores, I thought. Even if it was to make that disheveled oversize bed of hers.
“My sister would never control me like that,” she said. “I’m my mother’s favorite.”
“You have a sister?” I asked.
She scoffed. “I have a sister and two brothers, they’re all going to college in America.”
I was surprised she had siblings. According to my mother, rich people had only one child; that’s why they had a lot of money to spare. Of course, I disagreed. I didn’t see how it would have made much difference for my mother and sister had I never been born.
At home, I claimed I was sick and lay in bed the rest of the day. I couldn’t do my chores, couldn’t eat, couldn’t watch our TV that blinked in and out of signal. I hated that my bed whined at every movement I made. Hated the noise of neighbours screaming at each other outside the window. Hated the smell of the beans Raalu had on the stove. When my mother asked how my first day went, I couldn’t find the words..
“What is this? Is this your ‘thank you’ to your uncle?”
I bowed down and shook my head.
“Do you know that your school fees are twice my salary, you don’t know okwa ya?” she spat. “You should be jumping up and down for winning this lottery!”
“Mummy, you know Ifunanya is always looking for more,” Raalu said. “Maybe the school is not good enough for her.”
I glared at Raalu but said nothing. Whenever my mother scolded me, she inserted herself into it. She liked to echo my mother’s words and use the opportunity to assert power over me. But I didn’t care. It was me that my mother regarded as the intelligent one. When she bought me books, she bought Raalu needle and thread for her sewing hobby. More importantly, it was me that was going abroad. Soon, she would have to put respect to the way she talked to me.
Throughout that week, I went to Kelechi’s house after school. I liked being so close to richness. The house smelled different, like flowers. When I sat on her toilet, I was almost lulled to sleep from the plush toilet seat and all that water readily available to clean, clean, clean. All afternoon we would lie on her bed and read the books her sister sent from Brooklyn. When I told my mother that this was what we did at Kelechi’s house, she waved away all of Raalu’s complaints about my coming home late from school and approved my visits. “Stay there as long as you want, my dear,” she said, eyeing Raalu.
One afternoon, I noticed a stamp inside the front cover of her Enid Blyton books: Property of Providence Public Library. I ran my hand over the imprint while I imagined the floor-to-ceiling shelf this book must have lived on. I imagined the huge windowless library with many floors. The busy street outside the building, car horns blaring, pedestrians hurrying to important places. I imagined Americans parking their cars on the sidewalk and walking into the library. I imagined walking in too and scanning books on the shelf.
Kelechi noticed me staring at the stamp and snatched the book from me. “These books are so rare, my sister could only find one in a used bookstore.”
Perhaps she thought I was surprised that she owned something that so blatantly was not new. I wondered what she would think about my doll with the holes in its face. What she would think of all my things.
“Why are you friends with me?” I asked her.
I wanted her to say it was because I was intelligent or beautiful or funny or that I was the most awesome person she had ever known. Instead, she retorted, “Don’t you want to be friends anymore?”
We sat in silence staring at each other. “Sorry,” I finally said. “I just wanted to know.”
An uncomfortable silence followed and so I thought it necessary to add, “Thank you.”
Kelechi nodded, then shrugged.
It had only been a week, but I had folded into her life nicely. The cook even began to set the table for two, although Kelechi always announced that we would eat upstairs as soon as we walked into the house and found her mother to still be gone. After we had our lunch that was always really a feast—my mother would convulse if she saw a month’s worth of beef, stockfish and Mangala stuffed into one bowl of soup—we would spend the rest of the afternoon with Kelechi showing me her things and me looking on like a spectator. Sometimes she dressed up in her clothes and catwalked around the room while I giggled or clapped.
One afternoon, two weeks after we met, she decided to give me a tour of the rest of the house. Her siblings rooms were kept locked, so she simply pointed them out to me. They didn’t like her going into their rooms while they were gone, she explained. She pointed out her father’s bedroom and said he spent a lot of time in there by himself and didn’t like to be disturbed.
“Your father is alive?” I asked, then bit my lip when she glared at me. “It’s just that you said this was your mother’s house, people usually say father’s house.”
“We don’t have to do things like everybody else,” she snapped, then marched back to her room and slammed the door.
At home, Raalu said, “So why are you home early today?” she asked.
I shook my head and said nothing, almost bursting into tears. I was angry at Kelechi’s unnecessary outburst when I had only spoken the truth. Even my mother still acknowledged my father as the owner of our house. So what was wrong with pointing out the obvious to Kelechi?
I shook my head again at Raalu. If I told her, she would make fun of me for trying too hard to be friends with rich people. “I just wanted to come home early today,” I said, and she rolled her eyes.
The next day, Kelechi and I didn’t speak to each other until the midday bell rang and everyone headed to the canteen. She sat at my table and offered me a glass of juice, and then we were friends again—just like that. It was as though she had never told me about her father.
We quickly went back to our routine and more days passed without her mother coming home. I never even met her father, and he was in the house. Sometimes, on my way to the bathroom, I would stop by her father’s door and listen, but I never heard anything. I wondered if someone was even in there. I found it easier to believe that Kelechi had made him up and that she didn’t have a father. Perhaps, it was the one thing she didn’t have.
One day, when I could no longer keep it all in, I told Raalu about Kelechi’s father and how he stayed hidden in his bedroom. I told her about the silence through his door—not even a cough or a sneeze. Not even the sound of the TV. I wanted her to agree that he wasn’t real, but all she had to say in response was, “I don’t know why you’re still friends with that one.”
“Why? What do you mean?”
“She’s clearly not your friend If she won’t even introduce you to her father?”
“I’m sure there’s a reason she hasn’t yet,” I said.
Raalu stared at me. We were in the kitchen. I was washing the dishes and she was cutting up a yam.
“And why do you care?” she asked. “It’s not like you like this girl.”
“Are you happy with our life like this?” I spat at her pointing around the kitchen
“So, you think that by being friends with them you will suddenly become rich?” Raalu shook her head. “Sometimes I forget that you’re still a baby.”
“I’m not a baby,” I snapped.
Raalu rolled her eyes. “When you are older you will understand what’s important.”
Raalu sighed, then looked at me briefly before resuming with the slicing. “Packaging yourself well enough to find a respectable man to marry you. Like Daddy,” she said. “Do you think mummy would have had this house and all the things he left her if she hadn’t married well? Never mind that she threw it all away to send Uncle KC to Canada. What do we even have to show for it?”
“But he’s taking me to Canada.”
Raalu grunted. “Why do I even bother?”
When our mother came home, Raalu told her about Kelechi’s father, and my mother said, “I don’t like the sound of her anymore.” Then she asked why Kelechi never came to visit me. Did she think us below her?
So, the next day at school, I asked Kelechi if she would come to my house, and she agreed without hesitation, which surprised me. It wasn’t until she opined that we would play dress up with my clothes that I realized she didn’t know what she was about to walk into. When we got in the car, I gave my address to the driver, but I still had to point out the directions to him since there were no street signs in our neighborhood.
When we arrived, I was annoyed to find Raalu in the kitchen dressed in old clothes and on barefoot. I had told her that Kelechi was coming home with me and expected her to wear a newer dress and put on slippers. She didn’t even come into the living room to say hi. Kelechi and I sat there and stared at the blank screen of our small TV perched high on a shelf. She stared at my parents’ black-and-white wedding photo and offered a small smile when she saw me looking at her.
“Do you want to go to our bedroom?” I asked, but she jumped to her feet.
“I better head home before the driver gets annoyed.”
Raalu turned down the corners of her mouth when I went into the kitchen and told her that Kelechi was leaving.
“Not surprised,” she said.
The next day at school, Kelechi didn’t say anything about coming to my house. Instead, she said, “I’m going shopping and I want you to come. I’ll buy you a dress. Any dress you want.”
We went to Eastern Shop at Ogui Road. I had never been on that side of town. I had only heard about the noisy streets where you could be pushed off the sidewalk into the gutter if you walked too slowly. The driver parked right at the door, and I clung to Kelechi’s arm as we walked in.
“My father gave me some money,” Kelechi said to me when we got to the clothing section.
“Really?” I said. “Yeah,” Kelechi said as she held a yellow and black flowery dress in front of her and turned this way and that. “He wanted to come shopping with me but he got busy.”
I watched her from the corner of my eyes, every part of me knew she was lying but I nodded anyway. I chose two pink dresses. They were everything I ever dreamed of. Stuffed with net and lace under the skirts, they would swirl when I spun. One had embroidery in front, and the other had tiny white beads sewn into the top. I wonder what my mother would say when she saw them.
“Don’t you dare take things from them,” my mother had warned. “I don’t want them thinking we’re beggars.”
“My mother always shops with me,” I blurted out.
Kelechi eyed me and then said, “My mother shops with me when we’re in America.” Then she looked at me. “I don’t really buy my clothes here. I just wanted to buy you something pretty.”
I shrugged. “My uncle is going to take me shopping as soon as I get to Canada.”
She paused, then said, “So this your uncle, he just woke up one day and decided to take you to Canada?”
I told her about my uncle disappearing for years and then resurfacing. I explained that he decided to take me to Canada after he heard how studious I was. When I finished, she scoffed and laughed. “So, you just believe that this uncle will take you to Canada?”
I nodded, afraid I would burst into tears if I spoke.
“Do you know what it costs to live abroad?” she asked with a smirk. “It’s nothing like living in Nigeria, you know.”
“He’s my mother’s brother,” I said, finally finding the words. “My mother says he’s doing it to pay her back for helping him.”
“You know, according to my sister, there are two kinds of people abroad,” Kelechi said with a smirk. “People like us and people like your uncle.”
I wanted to ask what she meant, but I was scared she would only say even more hurtful things. I felt my chest tighten, and I let the pink dresses slip from my hands and drop to the floor.
“Take the dress,” she said, then looked away.
I didn’t. We rode all the way to her house in silence. As soon as the car parked by her front door, I got out and ran.
When Raalu heard what Kelechi had said she laughed.
“Is that why you’re crying?” she said. Then hissed, “My dear, abroad is abroad. Everyone who goes abroad is successful, period. It’s only privileged fools like Kelechi who look for differences where there are no differences.”
“So you think I’ll be successful if I travel?”
“You’ll probably never find a husband, but yes,” Raalu replied.
That evening my mother said, “That your friend is one to talk, with all that dirty business in their family.”
Raalu and I stared at my mother, urging her with our eyes to go on, but we knew better than to say anything. My mother didn’t like it when we were too interested in gossip.
“My friend cleans there three times a week and she told me the other day that your friend’s mother messes up in Abuja with men while her bedridden husband remains here alone.”
“Bedridden? Is he sick?” I asked.
“I hear she may have done juju on him for money. Who knows.”
“Poor man,” Raalu said.
That night, I went to bed with a smile on my face, pleased that I had been right about her father. The next day at school, I waited eagerly for Kelechi to walk into class, but she didn’t come that day and or for the rest of the week. After the second week, my victory dissipated into defeat and then worry, and I finally summoned the courage and went to the principal’s office.
“She didn’t tell you? Well, she left,” he said flatly.
“Left?” I said, my voice afar off.
“They relocated to America,” he said.
They? Who was they? She and her mother? She and her father? All three of them? I opened my mouth and then closed it back. Later I would think about all the questions I could have asked. When you were told she was leaving, did my name come up? Did she say to tell me goodbye? Have you met her father? Is he really sick? Did she really have everything?
“I’m sure you’ll make other friends. With time,” he said and returned to the file before him, dismissing me.
“Poor child,” my mother said at dinner when I shared the news. “She must have been left here to care for her father.”
I didn’t think my mother was right. I could not imagine Kelechi bearing such responsibility. Besides, if that was true, why did she move now?
“They have a maid who can take care of him,” I said.
“Maybe she simply succeeded in demonstrating a false life to you,” Raalu said, amused.
Some nights, I lay awake thinking about her. Had she known she was going to relocate and didn’t tell me? Or could it have happened so swiftly? I wondered if, like me, she too realized how much our friendship meant to her only after she left? Had I also been a window into another life as she had been to me? Was she now incomplete without that window? Broken? I wondered how far America was from Canada. Perhaps, I would find her and invite her to my uncle’s home. We could visit each other during holidays. Lilian and I could go together.
But a month before I was to leave for Canada, my uncle called and said that he and his wife were getting a divorce. My mother launched into a dance of gratitude. “Nna o! Biko come home, let us find you a proper Nigerian wife,” she cried. That day my mother did not call Uncle KC an anu ofia. Divorcing his wife cleared him of all animalistic behaviors she once accorded him. He was now her Nna o, whom she’d always known would someday return to his senses.
Talks about my going to Canada seized. The next time my uncle sent money it was to renovate our house and buy my mother a new car. There was no mention of my school fees. My sister tried to console me. “This is better Ifu,” she said waving her hand around the freshly painted walls of our living room. “All of us can benefit this way.”
When I asked my mother if I would ever go abroad, she said, “I’m sure you will but your uncle needs a new wife first. I mean, who will take care of you if you go there now? Hmm?”
Perhaps, as consolation, Uncle KC sent over a suitcase full of Lilian’s old clothes. My mother drove to the UPS to pick it up along with other things he sent us. The clothes were in a brown leather suitcase with worn corners that stood out amongst the other black plain duffel bags which contained small tubes of moisturizers, shampoos and bath gels that smelled so sweet we couldn’t stop bringing them to our noses.
The suitcase had a tag with ‘Ifunanya’ written on it in such a bad scribble I thought Lilian and not my uncle must have written it. It was Raalu who opened the suitcase, with a feverish quickness that annoyed me. The bag was full of clothes all pressed together from the journey like a bail of okirika clothes. The first cloth Raalu brought up was a white top with a drawing of Mickey Mouse, then jeans trousers, then a black skirt, then a grey skirt, an old white sneaker, and then at the bottom was the beige dress Lilian had worn that day at our house. Raalu pulled it out giddily and held it up in the air.
“Go try it on,” my mother cried.
I took the dress and was taken aback by the plushness of the satin that glided smoothly between my fingers. But the underarms were dark and felt hard and crisp, a sharp contrast from the soft fabric. I spread open the dress. There was a small hole on one of the sleeves and the small button at the back of the neck hung loose, held on by a strand of thread.
Couldn’t my uncle even buy one new dress for me? I thought. I remembered the pink dresses at the Eastern shop. Maybe Kelechi was right, and I should have taken one of them. I remembered her closet filled with clothes; some she had never even won. I remembered her saying abroad was different for someone like my uncle. Someone like me.
The old dress fit nicely except for the tightness under my arms which stretched the fabric in the chest area. When I walked into the sitting room, Raalu cried, “Wow, nice! You got nice things in there!” My mother cocked her head to the side and brought her hands to her chest as though enamored by me. I blinked back tears and offered a small smile to the two of them squeezed into that threadbare couch in our tiny living room.