2013 First Fiction Sampler

Happiness, Like Water
By Chinelo Okparanta


We became something—an item, Papa says—in February, months after Gloria’s visit to the school. That evening, I was hunched over, sweeping my apartment with a broom, the native kind, made from the raw and dry stems of palm leaves, tied together at the thick end with a bamboo string. I imagine it’s the kind of broom that Gloria no longer sees, the kind that Americans have probably never seen.

Gloria must have come in through the back door of the flat (she often did), through the kitchen and into the parlour. I was about to collect the dirt into the dustpan when she entered. She brought with her a cake, a small one with white icing and spirals of silver and gold. On top of it was a white-striped candle, moulded in the shape of the number thirty-four. She set it on the coffee table in the parlour and carefully lit the wick. I set the broom and dustpan down and straightened up. Gloria reached out to tuck strands of my tattered hair back into place. I’d barely blown out the flame when she dipped her finger into the cake’s icing and took a taste of it. Then she dipped her finger into the icing again and held the clump out to me.

‘Take,’ she said, almost in a whisper, smiling her shyest sort of smile.

Just then, the phone began to ring: a soft, buzzing sound. We heard the ring but neither of us turned to answer, because even as it was ringing, I was kissing the icing off Gloria’s finger.       

Mama still reminds me every once in a while that there are penalties in Nigeria for that sort of thing. And of course, she’s right. I’ve read of them in the newspapers and have heard of them on the news. Still, sometimes I want to ask her to explain to me what she means by ‘that sort of thing’, as if it is something so terrible that it does not deserve a name, as if it is so unclean that it cannot be termed ‘love’. But then I remember that evening and I cringe, because, of course, I know she can explain; she’s seen it with her eyes.

That evening, the phone rings, and if I had answered, it would have been Mama on the line. But instead, I remain with Gloria, allowing her to trace her fingers across my brows, allowing her to trace my lips with her own. My heart thumps in my chest and I feel the thumping of her heart. She runs her fingers down my belly, lifting my blouse slightly, hardly a lift at all. And then her hand is travelling lower, and I feel myself tightening, and I feel the pounding all over me. Suddenly, Mama is calling my name, calling it loudly, so that I have to look up to see if I’m not just hearing things. We have made our way to the sofa and, from there, I see Mama shaking her head, telling me how the wind has blown and the bottom of the fowl has been exposed.

Mama stands where she is for just a moment longer; all the while she is staring at me with a sombre look in her eyes. ‘So, this is why you won’t take a husband?’ she asks. It is an interesting thought, but not one I’d ever really considered. Left to myself, I would have said that I’d just not found the right man. But it’s not that I’d ever been particularly interested in dating men anyway.

‘A woman and a woman cannot bear children,’ Mama says to me. ‘That’s not the way it works.’ As she stomps out of the room, she says again, ‘The wind has blown and the bottom of the fowl has been exposed.’

I lean my head on the glass window of the bus and I try to imagine how the interview will go. But every so often the bus hits a bump and jolts me out of my thoughts.

There is a woman sitting to the right of me. Her scent is strong, somewhat like the scent of fish. She wears a head scarf, which she uses to wipe the beads of sweat that form on her face. Mama used to sweat like this. Sometimes she’d call me to bring her a cup of ice. She’d chew on the blocks of ice, one after the other, and then request another cup. It was the real curse of womanhood, she said. The heart palpitations, the dizzy spells, the sweating that came with the cessation of the flow. That was the real curse. Cramps were nothing in comparison, she said.

The woman next to me wipes her sweat again. I catch a strong whiff of her putrid scent. She leans her head on the seat in front of her, and I ask her if everything is fine. ‘The baby,’ she says, lifting her head back up. She rubs her belly and mutters something under her breath. 

‘Congratulations,’ I say. And after a few seconds I add, ‘I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.’

She tells me that it comes with the territory. That it’s been two years since she and her husband married, and he was starting to think that there was some defect in her. ‘So, actually,’ she tells me, ‘this is all cause for celebration.’

She turns to the seat on her right where there are two black-and-white-striped polythene bags. She pats one of the bags and there is that strong putrid scent again. ‘Stock fish,’ she says, ‘and dried egusi and ogbono for soup.’ She tells me that she’s heading to Lagos, because that is where her in-laws live. There will be a ceremony for her there, and she is on her way to help with the preparations. Her husband is taking care of business in Port Harcourt, but he will be heading down soon, too, to join in celebrating the conception of their first child. ‘Boy or girl?’ I ask, feeling genuinely excited for her.

‘We don’t know yet,’ she says. ‘But either one will be a real blessing for my marriage. My husband has never been happier,’ she says.

I turn my head to look out the window, but then I feel her gaze on me. When I look back at her, she asks if I have a husband or children of my own.

I think of Mama and I think of Gloria. ‘No husband, no children,’ I say.

The day I confessed to him about Gloria, Papa said: ‘When a goat and yam are kept together, either the goat takes a bite ofthe yam, bit by bit, or salivates for it. That is why when two adults are always seen together, it is no surprise when the seed is planted.’

I laughed and reminded him that there could be no seed planted with Gloria and me.

‘No,’ he said, reclining on his chair, holding the newspaper that he was never reading, just always intending to read. ‘No, there can be no seed,’ he said.

It had been Mama’s idea that I tell him. He would talk some sense into me, she said. All this Gloria business was nonsense, she said. Woman was made for man. Besides, what good was it living a life in which you had to go around being afraid of being caught? Mobile policemen were always looking for that sort of thing – men with men or women with women. And the penalties were harsh. Jail time, fines, stoning or flogging, depending on where in Nigeria you were caught. And you could be sure that it would make the news. Public humiliation. What kind of life was I expecting to have, always having to turn around to check if anyone was watching? ‘Your Papamust know of it,’ she said. ‘He will talk some sense into you. You must tell him of it. If you don’t, I will.’

But Papa took it better than Mama had hoped. Like her, he warned me of the dangers. But ‘love is love’, he said.

Mama began to cry then. ‘Look at this skin,’ she said, stretching out her hands to me. She grabbed my hand and placed it on her arm. ‘Feel it,’ she said. ‘Do you know what it means?’ she asked, but did not wait for my response. ‘I’m growing old,’ she said. ‘Won’t you stop being stubborn and take a husband, give up that silly thing with that Gloria friend of yours, bear me a grandchild before I’m dead and gone?’

‘People have a way of allowing themselves to get lost in America,’ Mama said when I told her that Gloria would be going. Did I remember Chinedu Okonkwo’s daughter who went abroad to study medicine and never came back? I nodded. I did remember. And Obiageli Ojukwu’s sister who married that button-nosed American and left with him so many years ago? Did I remember that she promised to come back home to raise her children? Now the children were grown, and still no sight of them. ‘But it’s a good thing in this case,’ Mama said smugly. She was sitting on a stool in the veranda, fanning herself with a plantain leaf . Gloria and I had been together for two years by then, the two years since Mama walked in on us. In that time, Gloria had written many more articles on education policies, audacious criticisms of our government, suggesting more effective methods of standardizing the system, suggesting that those in control of government affairs needed to better educate themselves. More and more of her articles were being published in local and national newspapers, the Tribune, Punch, the National Mirror and such.

Universities all over the country began to invite her to give lectures on public policies and education strategy. Soon she was getting invited to conferences and lectures abroad. And before long, she was offered that post in America, in that place where water formed a cold, feather-like substance called snow, which fell leisurely from the sky in winter. Pretty, like white lace.

‘I thought her goal was to make Nigeria better, to improve Nigeria’s education system,’ Papa said.

‘Of course,’ Mama replied. ‘But, like I said, America has a way of stealing all our good ones from us. When America calls, they go. And more times than not, they stay.’

Papa shook his head. I rolled my eyes.

‘Perhaps she’s only leaving to escape scandal,’ Mama said.

‘What scandal?’ I asked.

‘You know. That thing between you two.’

‘That thing is private, Mama,’ I said. ‘It is between us two, as you say. And we work hard to keep it that way.’

‘What do her parents say?’ Mama asked.

‘Nothing.’ It was true. She’d have been a fool to let them know. They were quite unlike Mama and Papa. They went to church four days out of the week. They lived the words of the Bible as literally as they could. Not like Mama and Papa, who were that rare sort of Nigerian Christian, who had a faint, shadowy sort of respect for the Bible, the kind of faith that required no works.

‘With a man and a woman, there would not be any need for so much privacy,’ Mama said that day. ‘Anyway, it all works out for the best.’ She paused to wipe with her palms the sweat that was forming on her forehead. ‘I’m not getting any younger,’ she continued. ‘And I even have the names picked out!’

‘What names?’ I asked.

‘For a boy, Arinze. For a girl, Nkechi. Pretty names.’

‘Mama!’ I said, shaking my head at her.

‘Perhaps now you’ll be more inclined to take a husband,’ she said. ‘Why waste such lovely names?’

The first year she was gone, we spoke on the phone at least once a week, but the line was filled with static and there were empty spots in the reception, blank spaces into which our voices faded. I felt the distance then.

Still Gloria continued to call, and we took turns re -constructing the dropped bits of conversation, stubbornly reinserting them into the line, stubbornly resisting the emptiness.

The end of that first year, she came back for a visit. She was still the same Gloria, but her skin had turned paler and she had put on a bit of weight.

‘You’re turning white,’ I teased.

 ‘It’s the magic of America,’ she teased back. And then she laughed. ‘It’s no magic at all,’ she said. ‘Just lack of sunlight. Lotsof sitting at the desk, writing, and planning.’

It made sense. Perhaps she was right. But it was the general consensus in Port Harcourt (and I imagine in most of Nigeria)that things were better in America. I was convinced of it. I

heard it in the way her voice was even softer than before. I saw it in the relaxed looks on the faces of the people in the pictures she brought. Pictures of beautiful landscapes, clean places, not littered at all with cans and wrappers like our roads. Snow, white and soft, like clouds having somehow descended on land. Pictures of huge department stores in which everything seemed to sparkle. Pictures in which cars and buildings shone, where even the skin of fruit glistened.

By the time her visit was over, we had decided that I would try to join her in America, that I would see about getting a visa. If not to be able to work there, then at least to study and earn an American degree. Because, though she intended eventually to come back to Nigeria, there was no telling how long she would end up staying in America. The best thing for now was that I try to join her there.

Excerpted from Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta, published in August by Mariner Books. Copyright © 2013 by Chinelo Okparanta. All rights reserved.