Running by Itoro Udofia
I’ve got an ancestor on my back.
Arit is a young woman, growing up in a home that balances two different worlds. On the TV, a preacher speaks of a God who looks nothing like her—back in her bedroom, the spirit of an ancestor speaks of a life that can never be Arit’s.
Running by Itoro Udofia tells the story of a first generation Nigerian-American, straddling the line between present and past, the life Arit wants, and the life others want for her.
I’ve got an ancestor on my back.
She wades through whatever spirit filled world she inhabits to rest herself beside me while I sleep. She recalls every inane habit of mine, down to the wrinkle that forms between my brows when I frown. What makes you different? Her knobby fingers wriggle between mine, and she positions her mouth next to my ear. A language? A country? A history? A prayer? I wanted to be you. Everything I eat. Wear. Say. Think. Sing. Love. Hate. She knows. I’m from your mother’s side. I died about a four hour drive from her hometown. I know where her people rest and where they go to church. I visited them often in the summers with my aunt. They’re still over there. Living and waiting. When she tells me this, I know I need her on my back, sniffing out my trail. I need her watching me because I know nothing about these people she’s visited. These people—she claims—wear the same face and frown that I do. I haven’t seen them since I was two or three, and I may never see them again. No one speaks their names over here unless one of them dies, and if they haven’t died, then I haven’t heard of them.
Possibly, my mother had mentioned something about these people in passing. Like that time she was driving and talked about her girlhood days of getting water from a river with her cousins. Perhaps these were the cousins she loved so dearly in those pictures I’ve seen in our family scrapbook. She said they walked four miles to a river they called nature’s mirror because it was so clear you could see all of nature in it. When she told me this story, I was barely listening. All I could think about was her driving fast enough to get me to the school dance while checking my cherry lip gloss and frosted eyeliner in the rearview mirror. My thoughts were of my failed attempt at beauty, despite my best efforts, I was sure no one would pick me to dance. Perhaps if I had grown up in her country, I wouldn’t have been so distracted and afraid, and could’ve heard her story of a clear river with laughing cousins. But I’ve put too much of myself into surviving on this land, and if there’s a story I need, it’s about making life work out here. I’m too much of an American kid, stuck in my American ways, and wedded to the personality I’ve formed here.
I fear that the country this ancestor spirit speaks of has something to do with my parents birthing their children in a slush of desperation and fear. My anger at their homeland makes me quintessentially American; I never care to ask what happened to their people or country. I only consider the fruit their country produces: the unforgiving faces and disjointed habits of my parents. And that, I can’t forgive. I’m an American through and through. At least, I think I am. Americans like me don’t bother to factor ourselves into the equation of any accountability. There’d be too much explaining and heartache that way. I’d rather point the finger, and forget there are four other fingers pointing back at me.
The ancestor resting beside me sniffs out my sentiments in the way I roll my eyes and scoff at her speaking of this so-called family waiting for me in another country. I met you when you were real small. You wanted to play games nobody knew or cared to understand, so I left you sitting on the couch and took your sister to play instead. She was old enough, and the games we played were games we understood. I should have spent more time with you, maybe if I had, you’d think of coming back. Her breath heats the tip of my ear. There’s nothing to forgive in my mind because I don’t remember a thing about a thing. She’s telling the truth though, this much I know, because in the family photo album I see pictures of me, a little girl with beads in her hair and a scowling face staring at the camera. In the picture, I’m surrounded by people; they stare back at the camera with scowling faces, some dressed in school uniforms, head wraps or tunics. One of them puts their hand on my shoulder. Their eyes stretch out across their face as mine do. Are these the people waiting for me to visit? Surely the spirit knows we’ve moved on from those pictures. I now have a little brother they have never seen, and we’ve all grown taller and gained weight while the photo album gathers dust on a shelf of books together with wasteful trinkets we’ve acquired. I think those people should stop waiting, and this ancestor spirit should stop wasting her time visiting someone she couldn’t even visit while alive. Besides, I don’t recall seeing her face in any picture I took while in my parent’s country. Who is this ancestor to me?
She recounts stories of her adventures roaming different worlds. Where she goes, she can ride on the back of a sound, and join spirits with dancing feet and swaying hips. These spirits—she tells me—were once-upon-a-time humans who now dance to a vibration that sits between wailing and praise. I go to a place where spirits dance out their sorrow after a hard time on earth. She traces my nose with her fingers. When I come back here, I come back to learn. “Take me with you!” I say, jumping in excitement because the spirit has finally said something that interests me. “I like to dance. I dance a lot in my room.” She rubs her knee, a knee that’s as knobby as her fingers. Anyone can dance for an eternity—but to live here on earth—that’s not a task for the weak-willed. You my dear, are stronger than me.
Later that week she visits me on a bad night. Bad nights consist of me hiding in my room while trying to scream into a pillow. This night, I get angry with myself because I’m too scared to even hear the muffled sound of my voice. When she appears, I try to gather myself and quickly wipe tears from my eyes, and snot from my nose. I’d never tell her that I’m happy to see her, but at that moment I can’t help myself. I ask her through sniffles, “Please take me with you.” She cups my face in her hands. No. I punch her, though my punches don’t hit skin or bone, they just go through her, as if I’m punching air or trying to hold water. I’m the one who’s supposed to take you from this world into the next, and I won’t take you anywhere until you are too old to be alive. I lunge toward her, hoping to pinch her nose until she cries, but she curls into herself and vanishes. I lay there that night thinking to myself. Sometimes you’ve got to keep punching until a bone cracks beneath your fist.
She first appeared when I turned ten. I was too much of a coward to run away from home but I thought about it. I sulked in my room, trying to hide from the feast my mom was cooking. The smell slithered through the cracks of my door and found its way into my nose. It was the smell of palm oil burning, and it coated itself in my nostrils, causing me to sneeze. I could hear laughter over a preacher’s voice blaring from the television speaking of God and salvation. My door muffled the sounds of the “I’m gonna get saved” music playing after the preacher’s sermon. When the TV evangelist’s voice thundered and Mom cooked while humming a hymn or a prayer, it was a good night.
About half an hour later, someone yelled from the bottom of the stairs, “Come down and eat!” I was the only one upstairs hiding, and I knew the decree was for me. I was a hiding kind of kid. The kid who failed to remember how to make goat meat pepper soup even though I had cut the meat, diced the onions, and burned my eyes slicing habanero peppers. My fingers usually looked like wrinkled faces after I washed the vegetables and meat because Mom would say, “Kill every germ you can with the water. I don’t need any one of us getting sick.” I was the kid who forgot the names of spices bought from the African market and boiled the yams till they turned to mush because all I thought about was hiding. That night I wasn’t called to help cook, and I sat on my bed cursing the smell invading my privacy. Why can’t we just have spaghetti? I wondered. That’s what most kids at my school ate for dinner. Why can’t we do the same? That night I ate afang soup with doughy Bisquick wishing a wormy string of spaghetti was sliding down my throat. A couple of hours later, the ancestor girl woke me from my sleep. She sat next to my bed, picking the crust from the corners of my eyes.
Her hair was shaved, revealing her jutting forehead and big eyes that left little room for a nose and mouth. I think she was seventeen or eighteen because she talked like someone who was ready to go out into the world on her own terms. But her shaved head made her look younger, like she was thirteen or fourteen. She wore a long dress that was lined with plain white buttons trailing down the middle. If she dared come to my school dressed like that, the kids would point and laugh. Even the uncool kids would point and laugh. If I had seen her walking through the hallways like that, I may have pointed and laughed, or just looked away. She rubbed my cheek and wiped the drool off my chin. Then she turned to a plate of spaghetti and meatballs sitting on her lap. The plate looked exactly like what I had craved for dinner. She let the noodles dangle from the fork as she took a bite. It tastes ok. Soon you’ll see that it’s not the best. I dismissed her visit thinking she was nothing but a pestering dream, but her touch on the side of my eyes and chin left a tingle on my face that lingered for the next day. A few days later she caught me on a bad night. It was a day when the evangelist preacher wasn’t blaring from the television, Mom was asleep, and we children made lunch and dinner for ourselves, eating ramen noodles, chocolate chip cookies (the chewy kind) and leftover soup with rice. We watched morning cartoons turn to family-friendly afternoon movies to rated R night shows with kissing girls and boys we weren’t supposed to watch. That day the TV shows bored me, and I decided to have some fun in my room. In my room, I’d dance, sing, and pretend to date a guy named John with blow-in-the-wind hair. I drew pictures of what I would look like in the future. My future self looks like a tall woman with large hoop earrings and a back that doesn’t hunch. Her mouth is closed and though she’d never say it, I know she’s not afraid. I’d turn on the radio and dance to the latest pop and R&B tunes. I let my body stomp and twirl in the room, doing a liturgical dance to the future. In my merriment, I jumped as if trying to fly across town, the state, or the country until I sweat. When I danced this way, trouble usually followed me upstairs. I learned in my room that trouble always followed if I danced to wish for something different.
He never knocked on the door, and the lock to my room never worked. He entered that day, giving me no time to gather myself back into reality.
“Didn’t you hear me calling you?” He asked.
“Yes,” I muttered. That was a grave mistake. You just don’t answer “yes,” when a parent calls you. You must address adults according to their position and title; I should have said, “Yes Daddy.” He hit me over the head for that one, and I fell back on the bed with the left side of my head throbbing.
“Why are you so rude?” He raised his arm ready to strike again, but my feet started to kick the way they did when I danced and twirled in my room. He tried to find a limb to grab, but my legs kicked till I couldn’t see them anymore. I gained momentum like a fan once it’s turned on, and at that moment, I kicked until he turned to leave. I had won, but I knew once I went downstairs I’d pay for my disobedience. I played music and danced till I fell asleep. That night the spirit visited again. So you all kick your fathers over here? Siii! I turned away to the wall, but then she appeared lying next to me, with her broad forehead pressed against mine. “If you were me you’d kick him too,” I said. You should stop doing that. It is wrong for daughters to kick their fathers. The ancestor took her forehead off mine and scowled, like the way those people in the pictures scowled in the family photo album.
“Is it wrong for fathers to hit their daughters?” I asked.
She scanned my face. I could tell she wanted to answer but she just sucked her teeth. Why do you hide away from your family? That night, I told her about all the things I heard from my room. Chairs thudding against the wall. Someone crying. Parents bickering in a language I didn’t speak. Occasional laughter and giggles, but mostly an overbearing preacher and gospel music playing from the family TV.
I told her about what happened in the house when I left the room. I told her about how each time I went downstairs, my chest tightened and my knees began to hurt. I told her the story about the time I saved my life before I had to eat dinner. I was washing a dish to eat with, and I must have done something to make him angry with me. When I turned around, I saw him with a softball in his hand. That was the softball my sister used to practice for her games, games that for some reason I never got to see. I couldn’t explain to the spirit how he found the softball lying around in the kitchen. But that’s the way it was in our house. You’d see a softball placed next to a fork, a bag of Cheetos, and a can of Raid. I watched him pick up the softball and aim it towards my forehead. Thankfully, something in my body reacted and my arm came up to block the collision from happening. I figured that if I was going to get out alive, I’d need to have my head intact. He tried to strike once more and I wrapped my arms around my head. Finally, he got tired of me covering my head and stomped away. It wasn’t until he left that I realized the rest of the family was watching while they were sitting at the dinner table. We looked at each other, simply blinking for a moment or two until there was nothing to do but laugh. “Sorry.” Mom said after a wave of laughter. “That would have been real bad if he had hit you.”
“Yeah, that softball was coming for your head pretty fast.” My sister said. I sat down with my dish, and we went on eating. That’s why I hide, I told her. She rubbed my cheek. I wanted to be you. I tell her we could switch bodies. I assumed she had the power to make that happen. Dancing and flying between heaven and earth seemed like a treat. Maybe I wouldn’t mind wearing a long dress with plain buttons. She could take my life and have my body any day of the week. But she didn’t seem interested in switching bodies, all she wanted to do was ask me questions.
She asked if I knew the language my parents spoke and I told her the words I learned. Amesiere meant good morning, didia mkpo meant come and eat, dimi meant come here, and kopinwa meant shut up. Tears fell down her face onto her dress. I tried to wipe a tear away, but my hand just went through her. “Are you dead?” I asked. She sucked her teeth and sat up in bed. They buried my body in a grave, and I have a tombstone. I tried putting my hand in hers but it just went through her, and I finally stopped trying to touch her because I realized she wasn’t made of bone or flesh. That night I learned she never got to visit America like she had hoped because she died during her last year of high school.
If I’m in my room, Dad won’t hit me because he thinks I practice juju upstairs. Mom knocks before entering, and my brother and sister make fun of me from outside the door. They cackle saying, “She’s talking to herself again,” or, “She’s jumping around again,” or, “One of these days she’s gonna break the floor.” They say I’m bizarre. They don’t know that sometimes the ancestor spirit dances with me. I taught her how to do the butterfly and tootsie roll. I draw pictures of what she could look like in the future, and she insists that I draw her in jeans and a tube top with her hair touching her elbows. I still say “Yes Daddy,” eat what’s on the table, and say my prayers. Dad still enters my room without knocking, but instead of yelling, he hands me a book to read. This time he gives me a book called, The Souls of Black Folk. All I know is that the book is thick and the author looks like he sits and broods all day. What do I care about the souls of Black folk for? Can’t this man see I’m dancing? Dad teaches Africana Studies as an adjunct professor at a community college and loves books. “They pay us pennies.” He says. “But at least I’m not driving a taxi like other immigrants I know with degrees but no options.” Teaching is one of the few things that’ll make my dad take a long shower, shave his beard, and leave the house whistling. It’s the only job he’ll work without a fuss. He refuses to work at any place where he has to punch in and out on someone else’s clock. In his words, those jobs are mindless, and he didn’t come to America to languish in a dank room watching a machine stamp a chef’s knife. His eyes inspect my room.
“Your jumping better get you to Harvard.”
I look at the cover and guess the book to be about five hundred pages or so. “Read this and have an essay to me by the end of next week. You should know who this man is.” I’m fifteen. I care little for school, and even less for Harvard, though I read the books he gives me because I care for my life. I go downstairs to sit at my mom’s bedside and complain. She lets out a small laugh.
“Read it. You all don’t have my love for science, but you do have your father’s love for words. Don’t be like us with all these booksmarts but no money coming in. I want better for you than working retail and teaching part time like your old Mama here. Prepare your mind for Harvard. Ok?” She pulls the cover over her head to sleep. That night the schoolgirl visits me, rubbing my cheek and touching my braids. Your mother really enjoys sleep. Why? I shrug. She moves to take the latest book I must read off my desk.
“It’s so dumb I have to read that,” I say.
She thumbs through the pages, making a few grunts and sighs, perhaps showing a little bit of curiosity for the book. “It’s alright.” I say nonchalantly. “If you’re into history it’s not a bad read. The author writes like he’s too smart to say things plain because educated people like to talk too much, but all he’s saying is that nothing that our teachers taught us in school about this country are true, and if you’re Black you really can’t act the fool and lie to yourself.” The spirit raises her eyes from the book and looks at me with a smirk on her face. So your father isn’t all that bad, huh? She smiles almost wickedly, and in that moment I try to ignore the gnawing thought that tells me I hate her. You will miss them when you leave here. She puts the book down. When you finish reading, I want to know everything. Don’t keep good information to yourself. That night I learn her name is Ekpewan.
It’s my sixteenth birthday, and Ekpewan always visits on my birthday. For years this has been our ritual. She’ll arrive flushed and out of breath because she’s been dancing. Sweat will run from her forehead and she’ll smile. I dance over there the way you dance over here. I dance so we can find peace. It’s coming. It’s coming… this birthday is different. I’m still too cowardly to run away but I’m old enough to know I will soon leave here. I’m also old enough to see that dancing and twirling in this world does not always mean things will change. I don’t need a spirit who can’t help me traipsing around here. We need a miracle. The snow-haired evangelist said if we believed and tithed more we would get one. We give ten percent to the church and keep the TV preacher speaking from morning till night, and still no miracle. Giving money to said preacher’s church does not equal a miracle. For all the smarts my family says they have I don’t understand how they came to accept such a ridiculous equation as a fact. The only benefit I’ve seen is our dollars and coins weighing heavy in the preacher’s pocket while we kids continue to eat ramen noodles and stale bologna sandwiches for lunch. I’m sixteen and think like a true American. Miracles aren’t handouts, a true miracle is bought. The miracle is in the racketeers pockets! I want to scream this at them. Take the velvet tithing basket and dump it into your purse. Pay your bills and get your miracle. You’ll feel better waiting for God’s light knowing your electricity won’t shut off. I think this to myself whenever I see my mom’s worn hands drop a check into the basket.
But if they were to follow me into my room and watch me when I shut the door they’d find me entertaining a spirit. If they found out that my closest friend was a spirit that went to another world to dance, I’m not sure they’d say, “Now there goes a girl with her wits about her. Let’s put our faith in her.” Maybe we’re all untrustworthy in one way or another, because if I said the words, I speak to spirits out loud, I wouldn’t trust myself.
Tonight I wait, sitting with the pillow against the wall, awake and ready. Ready to catch her. I can’t tell if she flew through the wall, or door, or ceiling to get here, but she appears smiling. She always arrives like she never left, and it bugs me that I can never pinpoint how she enters my room. I straighten my back against the pillow and lean forward hoping my voice won’t crack, “Unless you can bring us a miracle don’t come here again.” Before she can sit down to rest on my bed I say these words. “It’s not fair that you get to go away whenever you want. You won’t even bring me with you. That’s a real shitty thing to do.” She inches a bit closer, maybe wanting to rub my cheek or wipe a tear. “Don’t come any closer, just stay away, please. I gotta get out of here, ok? I think I get what you’re trying to say but you’ve got to understand what I’m saying too. They hurt me, they hurt me here, ok? They just do. I don’t know how to say it, I don’t how to prove it, but I know that it’s happening. I got to leave. And I don’t want to see you until I get out of here.” She looks at me, not squinting her eyes in displeasure or anger, not looking like she might cry, but looking like she knew this day was coming. My right hand feels cooler than my left, and my intestines feel like they’re trying to twist themselves into a bowtie. Nausea sets in. I get a sneaking suspicion I’ve done something wrong.
This is how I did it. The night I sent Ekpewan away I had decided to take the spirit world into my own hands. I knelt in front of my bed the way Mom had taught me to. I usually hated lowering my head before a man sitting somewhere in the sky that I couldn’t see. Hadn’t I wasted enough of my life bowing down, counting the scratches in wooden floors? Women like us must bare it all behind locked doors over the comfort of our beds. She’d tell me this whenever I’d frown in defiance having to sing another praise song or fumble through reading Psalm 63 before I could go to sleep. On my bed I remember you, I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I had remained skeptical about God, sweaty evangelical preachers, and whether or not Moses parted the Red Sea with his staff, but that night I clasped my hands together and thrusted my arms back and forth ready to call on a God of my own making.
A wooden floor mirror stood at the side of my bed. I had always wondered why it was placed there. I had rationalized that the room was too small for it to fit anywhere else but I wondered if it was there for me to say a prayer to myself. The God I wanted had a wide nose and skin that turned the color of eggplant in the heat of the sun. The God I wanted knew what it felt like to be chosen last for a game in her PE class and understood what it felt like to wish that the lock on your door actually worked. I didn’t have much favor with a Santa Claus like man dressed in a flowing robe sitting on a cloud, but I could try to garner sympathy from the young woman staring back at me. I had nothing to lose that night.
I prayed that night. “Put me to sleep!” I shouted. “You hear me? Send me away.” I groaned through tears and spit. “Take me to dance on a rainbow, or to sit on a star, or to fly through Jupiter, bring me there. Please…” I was pitiful, a blubbering fool, but the young girl in the mirror told me to speak. “Drain my body of every feeling, drain the joy, drain the confusion, drain the anger, drain the excitement.” The words sputtered from my mouth like a sprinkler flailing about the lawn with no care for where the water aimed. “Take me out of this small town. Out of New England. I want something bigger, better, than here.” The floor shifted from left to right and my arms pulsed faster. I looked at the young woman hoping I had said enough but she demanded more. I tried to unclasp my hands but it was as if gorilla glue had fastened my palms together, making it impossible for me to free myself. The young woman’s eyes turned red and her forehead was glistening. She had more to say. “I, Artit Essien, ask for help. Help me. Please.” The girl in the mirror settled into herself, eyes turning back to white and her hands unclasping. She became calm and I realized I was free.
A sudden craving growled in my stomach as my mouth watered. In that moment I had a taste for sugar; a chewy peanut butter cookie, creamy blackberry ice cream, a thick chocolate shake with shaved coconut on the top. A bitter taste sat like paste in my mouth and all I wanted was a sweet to hide the stench. If hunger was an entree filled with nothing but sugar I would have eaten it gladly with a knife and fork. Mom screamed from the bottom of the stairs. Shrill and persistent in her conviction to get my attention. “Arit, stop jumping around and come down here to eat!” Her message had come at the right time.
On any other day I would have pretended I didn’t hear her and turn the volume on my CD player up, blasting the latest Aaliyah joint in my ears. But that day I felt no protest. “I’m coming!” I screamed. I think I had screamed, maybe I was too hungry to shout. I had decided that whatever was for dinner I’d eat it and pretend it was chocolate lava cake until I could get the real thing. I didn’t shout or raise a stink with anyone for the next two years. All I cared about was finding a way to sweeten the hunger. I wiped the remnants of a young woman beside herself from my face and went downstairs to dinner.
I call home twice a week. Sunday I call because my family goes to church, and it’s rude for a daughter not to call her family after service. Wednesday I call them because those are the days I must run to wash dishes between classes and homework. From morning until dinner I work shifts as a dishwasher, a gig I worked out with the financial aid office for work study. I never see the faces of students placing their dirty plates in the dish trays. I do see their hands though. Hands with shiny rings, leather watches, magenta nails, all placing half scraped dishes in trays and utensils in soapy water. I study the hands of those of us taking the dirty plates to wash. Our hands are the color of dusk, tree bark, squash, pearl, and hazelnut. They spray half eaten food off plates into the sink. We’re from the Dominican Republic, Los Angeles, Nicaragua, Ohio, Senegal, Massachusetts, New York, China, Mexico, Cambodia, Florida, and Barbados.
The wrinkles and sponginess of our dampened hands reveal we must wash dishes if we want to study here. Some of us pulling the lever to turn on the dishwasher are one of the first in our families to walk these hallowed halls our parents took low paying jobs for. Some of us take the dishes with satisfaction, knowing we will have our time to duke it out with the decorated hands that give us their filthy plates. We’ll be ready for those hands in class, knowing that soon enough we’ll give them their dirty dish back. When they ask why children from “underprivileged areas” never have their parents around, we’ll say our parents are busy, busy washing the plates of people with shiny rings and watches. Busy scrubbing toilets, and wiping the asses of their ungrateful children. Then we’ll say the things our parents couldn’t say because they needed the money, for us.
We also have other perks that come with our parents’ hopes and prayers, like the luxury of hopping from one dining hall to another and swiping our ID cards that let us eat with wild abandon. The grumble in my belly isn’t all consuming like when I was home. There are other things to fill myself with, like staying up all night to write ten page papers for my African-American lit class or daydreaming about how I’ll land a high paying corporate job and drive a Mercedes Benz by the time I graduate. From time to time, the gnawing chews my stomach and alerts me that I need a fix. College has expanded my appetite to a life beyond buttercream frosting and Arnold Palmers. Our cards give us access to noodle bowl nights, vegan food, spaghetti, ice cream sundae night, and good old hamburgers with french fries. If our families travel to dine in these hallowed halls, they must pay to eat. Non-ID carriers must pay for the five-star cuisine the school offers. Sometimes they can pay, other times, we take our Tupperware to the dining hall and stash extra food for our families. We also get to study abroad or cry in the college counselor’s office when we’re overwhelmed. No wonder when we visit home our arrogance prompts someone to ask, “Who are you?”
On Wednesdays when my apron is soggy, I call home to check on them. My parents still pray and give their ten percent to the church. My brother transferred to a new high school where the students are college bound and the class sizes are much smaller, which in layman’s terms means he’s at a predominantly white school with hapless teachers mispronouncing his name every chance they get. My sister’s in her last year of college and is leading six different organizations while failing advanced calculus. They’re my blood, and blood is supposed to ensure a sense of adoration and kinship, but I wonder if what binds me to them is a sense of the familiar. Like brushing my teeth every day because I don’t want trashcan breath. I’m not certain that I check in on them because of that all encapsulating sensation called love. If I can make Thanksgiving or Christmas, I’ll try, but I have no money to buy gifts or contribute to food for the holidays. If I want to see them, I better pick up another gig polishing silver for the fancy dinners the college president likes to host. One night, after I call my Mom, I can tell the schoolgirl, Ekpewan, is around. She doesn’t reveal herself, and I don’t think I have the sensitivity to see her anymore anyway. Studying for exams have replaced my days of dancing and drawing pictures of my future self. The tingle on my ear gives her away. I’m not ready to see her, but I am willing to talk again. And listen. If you leave them for good. Who will you become?
The next morning I call Mom again. Her work schedule is more grueling than mine. She works during the day as an adjunct professor (they won’t give her a full time position, though she works a full time schedule), and in the evening she works retail (meaning she never gets a chance to sit down). On Sundays she’s energized from the rush of hearing the Word and more willing to share a few good words of her own. During our Sunday phone calls, I learn that she was once a girl (a fact that shocked me, since I thought she came out of her mother an exhausted woman), worked at a convenience store while she was pregnant with me, and believes there is God in science (How can you look under the microscope and watch those cells move and not see the work of God?, she says). She’ll tell me stories about her mother and begins her sentences with, “My mother taught me…” or, “She was a wise woman.” I think she tells me these things because she left her mother’s house too, and maybe she didn’t listen too much to anything her mother said until it was too late. When I finally left home, I learned that I couldn’t fly on top of buildings, or pick up a car on my back like Superman, but I could move to a bigger town in New England, wash dishes, and study.
It’s Thursday morning and I listen to Mom’s sighs and murmurs of exhaustion. She has to finish prepping lessons for her classes and fix her mind on working a six hour shift selling furniture and appliances.
“I love you,” I say. “I love you very much.”
The line is quiet, and I’m not sure if I’m hearing her breathe or if there is static on the other side.
“I love you too dear.” She replies, “And remember, God loves you most.”
That night I lay awake in bed and pray. I won’t bend over my bed to pray or read passages from the Bible. I lie in bed, ready to talk about what I remember. I whisper to myself, knowing a young girl with red eyes and eggplant skin is listening, until I fall asleep.
Here, you must choose sides. In the land of the free and the home of the brave they could care less whether you’re Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Galambi, Efik, Ibibio, Calabar, from the north or the south, multilingual, or the daughter of a chief. They don’t care if you puke out the colors red, white, and blue, or love their founding fathers more than they do. When you go outside they don’t see your tribe, or the garb you so proudly choose to wear or not wear; they see skin.
“We’re not far from the dark ages here.” I tell her. “Here, your skin is currency.”
When you’re walking down the street no one asks who you are, where you’re from, where your people are from, whether you’re rich or poor or somewhere fledgling in the middle, you’re Black. And Black skin means you’re a perpetual foreigner. Here, they shoot first and ask questions later, if they even ask them at all. I tell this to Ekpewan.
She eavesdrops on conversations I have with friends, all of us Black women, with our legs and arms crisscrossed with one another so we can fit on my twin-sized bed. They’re from Atlanta, Arkansas, and Pasadena. They’ve been born and re-born in this country for generations, much longer than I have. Lisa, my friend from Arkansas, tells us about the high school sweetheart she left in the South.
“Down there, white folks can laugh with you over a glass of lemonade, but the next day they’ll call you a nigger if you step out of place. They’ll laugh with you till they’re beet red so long as you know they’re white and you’re Black. When I started dating Bryant, his parents kicked him out of the house for a week. They wanted him to stay at his grandparents’ house, but his grandparents didn’t want to take him in, so he had to stay at his uncle’s place in the next town. His dad went to see him and had a ‘good ole boy’ talk with him, saying that before he got married, he also had a case of ‘jungle fever’ before he settled down to have a respectable life. His dad was like, ‘I’ll let you back in the house because this is gonna end.’ Can you believe that?” One of us rolls our eyes and lets out a sigh before giving an answer.
“Well, after listening to white people say they’re not racist after wearing blackface for Halloween… it definitely is within the realm of possibility.”
Ah-ah! The whites like to paint their faces Black over here? But why!? Ekpewan. She always interjects into our conversations. I hope she doesn’t reveal herself and scare my friends away. They’d run out of here so fast. We giggle, letting our arms and legs shake with our laughter. I suspect Ekpewan might have found a little space on the bed, or sat leaned over in a chair, laughing too.
“Why would Bryant tell you this?” I ask.
“‘Cause he felt guilty like they always do when they know they’re not gonna do shit. He said he was in love with me and wanted to get married. The southern girl in me said ‘of course I’ll marry you,’ but if I wasn’t even allowed in his house, how would we work out? We didn’t last too long after that.”
Ekpewan’s voice stays with me throughout the day, following me into the shower, my classroom, dinner, and bed time, trying to understand the conversations I have with my friends. These friends you have are good. They have guts. You need guts to live on earth. But what about your other sisters I see walking on campus, the ones coming from Africa? You never sit with them. Why?
I murmur back to her while turning towards the wall.
“I don’t know my language, I don’t talk much to my parents, and I can’t stand the Nigerian gospel songs they play.”
What does that have to do with saying hello and eating lunch with somebody? Though I can’t see her, I guess she’s lying next to me tracing my nose with her finger, or moving about the room dancing.
“Let me break it down for you,” I pull myself upright in bed.
“The Africans and Caribbeans don’t cross into the Black Student Union, and Black Americans don’t really cross into the African & Caribbean Association. Sometimes we’ll go to each other’s dances or movie nights, but overall, we stay in our lanes. One side thinks the other is lucky to be in America because their homelands are barbaric and their cultures need to be modernized, and the other side thinks the other is lazy, and they don’t want to be guilty by association when they get here, so… it’s easier not to associate.”
And what of you? She challenges, as if wagering a bet to see if I’m quick enough to match her appraisal. Are you not African?
“I was born here.” I snap. “As far as I know, I’m American made.” She does not say anything after my thorough explanation. I feel a tickle of satisfaction, triumphantly lying back in bed. I have outranked her somehow because I understand something more than she does. That night, a dream comes. Or perhaps something more like a memory. In the dream, I’m dancing with my siblings and some distant cousins that came to visit us from Connecticut. The fact that we moved into a three story house was cause for a party. I must have been eight or nine. One of the aunties brought dollar bills to shower the children with while we danced. I remember grabbing the floating bills and dancing to some song with a good beat. In the dream, I had more time to observe the smiles forming while we danced, and hear my parents say something about spraying us with money on our wedding day. The next morning, I wake up and write about everything I remembered about my life before I left home. I’m ready to talk frankly to the God I saw in the mirror that night.
To the God who looks like me,
I used to get hit and called a lot of names at home. My dad used to say I was a loose girl, a crafty kid, and a fool. My mom stood and watched him, and when she was too tired to watch she went to her bed and took a nap. It hurt me but one day I prayed to you and didn’t feel pain anymore. You got me out of there and now I’m asking you to help me again because in three years I don’t want to go back and live with my parents. I want a good paying job and a Mercedes in a nice neighborhood where people walk dogs with silly names like Periwinkle. Take me to California where there’s no snow and the weather is nice. Help me put my degree to good use, after all, I go to an all girls college and we’re supposed to be the leaders and the voices of the future. Give me a big voice with a lot of money.
On Sundays, I clean my apartment. I begin with my room, going through the closet to find unworn sweaters and pants I swore I’d wear months ago. If it turns out the hangers wore a shirt or pair of itchy jeggings more than I did, those clothes go in a box for donation. Then, I clean the bathroom, scrubbing the floor, toilet, and tub till I see their surfaces glisten. My mom said the two cleanest places in a home should be the kitchen and the bathroom. So I sweep every corner, mop as far under the refrigerator as the Swiffer will let me, and polish my forks and spoons until I see myself in everything I’ve touched.
I live on a street where Chinese immigrants walk under bright umbrellas when the sun gets too hot. Police cars speed down the street during the day, and during the night they speed down the street with their bells and whistles ringing. When you walk further down, you’ll see bright walking umbrellas change to people hanging on the corners or sauntering across the road, letting cars swerve around them while drivers honk out their frustration. Selena’s bidi-bidi-bom-bom blasts onto the street, giving people a bit of nostalgia for a woman wearing a bustier with silver sequins, unafraid to sing the songs of a resilient people. The week before a 90s R&B girl group blared from someone’s storefront, causing a passerby to yell to the owner, “Man, you’re playing all the slaps out here!” A stocky man with a baseball cap sells bags of cut watermelon and mango with chili and lime juice on the street to people on their way to the bus, to the hospital, to the store, to their homes.
When I finish cleaning my studio, I walk the street. On these days I wear gold hoop earrings bought for $5.99 and rub my skin with shea butter. I never intend to go to church on a Sunday, but I make sure to wear my Sunday best, which means a modest dress that stops a couple of inches below my knees with a cardigan sweater tucked in my purse in case it gets cold. Further down the road women and girls with short skirts and Brazilian weaves walk up and down the block waving to cars passing by. Some of them wear jeans and a t-shirt, or a dress that stops a couple inches below their knees like mine. They look like everyday people doing everyday things until a car slows down and they get in. I remember a friend giving me unsolicited advice about my neighborhood, saying, “If you see little girls waiting on a corner, just know they’re not waiting for the bus.” I’ve got to be careful walking the street because many times I’ve been stopped. I try to convince myself that I’m different from the other girls on the street. I found a job at some non-profit teaching kids from neighborhoods where the streetlights flash on and off, and there’s a check cashing store on every block. The job keeps me eating rice and beans all week but at least I’m doing some good. I think this to myself as I step out the door. But every thought I have gets put to the test on the street, where the chill of the Bay Area sweeps up all our skirts just the same and you never know who’s peeping. One man followed me for twenty minutes and finally stepped out of his car to ask if I needed a ride. I looked at him in disbelief and said, “Sir, I’ve reached my destination!” This isn’t a walking kind of neighborhood. Not for a young woman alone. But on Sunday, after I clean, I walk. Not all people that drive slow or hang onto their street corners do that—follow people that don’t want to be followed. Some call me sister, or queen, or give a nod of recognition as I walk. I never hold a glance for too long though. On this street, it’s best not to linger. I’ve tried to walk to the end of the street, but really, it’s one of the longest streets in the city.
When I walk, I know that Ekpewan walks with me. She’s always there, the flea that won’t stop buzzing in my ear. I hear her footsteps tapping beside me, and her voice leaves a tingle on the tip of my ear. She notes the trash strewn across the street, cluttered with candy wrappers, half eaten cheeseburgers, plastic red cups, bras, and even a used tampon. We watch cars drive around potholes taking up the entire street. We pass children playing in front yards with not much room to run because everywhere is fenced in. Why do you live here? She asks. These days I find myself snarling back at her in every exchange.
“Why do you follow me?” I ask this not wanting to know the answer but she offers one anyway. Because I love you and I don’t want you picked off the street. Something similar happened to me when I lived on earth and I tell you it’s a suffering greater than anything I’ve ever known. She drones on and I keep my eyes shifting about the street, taking in new sights and colors I didn’t catch before. I’m getting tired of her in my ear. I didn’t move across the country to entertain a wandering soul. I’ve got my own to save.
On one walk, we happened upon a Nigerian restaurant. There, I ate fufu that reminded me of my mom’s cooking, jollof rice with dodo, and a meat pie. After we had found the restaurant (and felt satisfied with the food), we started going there as part of our Sunday walks. I met a man whose voice sounded like the TV preacher I watched as a kid. He turned around to look at me while he was waiting for the cashier to ring up his meal.
“How are you?” He asked.
“Fine,” I replied.
“You sound like you were born here.”
“That’s ’cause I was born here.”
“Do you visit home often?”
Another man—I suppose his friend—turned around to join the conversation. He grabbed a greasy bag of chin-chin from the cashier while staring back at me,
“Are you not an adult? Why don’t you go home? There’s no excuse now.”
“True,” I answered.
“Leave her alone, brother. We all choose what we choose. Besides, it works better for me that my children don’t know my language, and have never visited Nigeria. They were born in Sacramento, and all they know is Sacramento. When they ask me why my accent is so funny, I tell them, this is how Black people from the South sound. And when I talk in Yoruba, they never know what I’m talking about. They don’t know a damn thing, and it works better for me this way. Children asking too many questions is not a good thing.”
The man with the TV preacher voice and his friend laugh.
“My children are confused-o!”
I walk to the restaurant to cry and eat. Once, a woman wearing a large hat with purple feathers caught me shedding tears while stuffing rice with red sauce down my throat. She first sat across from me, peering over her plate of rice and beans to observe me wipe my eyes and eat my meal. Finally, she picked up her plate and walked over to my table, sat herself down and asked, “Sister, why do you weep?” I don’t know what I told her, probably nothing, because in that place, people talk-talk-talk without listening, and laugh so hard that they may not hear what someone else is saying. I don’t think there was enough room for me to explain anything because she took a bible out of her purse, recited passages from Psalms, and told me the importance of giving my life to Jesus.
“He will solve it all!” The woman stretched her rough hand to touch mine, “I tell you, you must give your life to him. Give your life to him, and you won’t cry anymore, my dear.” Ekpewan weighs in. If I were alive I’d have given my life over to Jesus Christ but I don’t know what he’d say about what I’ve seen in this country! She makes good points. If more people gave themselves over to our Dear Savior, then they would know to put their trash in the garbage. Little girls would not sell their bodies and would go to school, and the police would not be so corrupt. You wouldn’t come to a restaurant to put all your business out for the world to see and cry without reason. I think I agree with this woman here. What are your thoughts on this Arit? I say nothing to the woman holding my hand or to Ekpewan tugging at my ear. They don’t care that I’m in love with a God that looks and sounds more like me than it does them. I wipe a tear from my eye. I should have known that it’s best not to cry on a Sunday.
I always brace myself for the walk back home, which is all uphill. I should take the bus, but I hate waiting. Sometimes I think Ekpewan works her magic to push me up the hills a little faster. I always make it back to the apartment before the streetlights go on. Before I go to bed, I think about the day, and all the chores I’ve done to clean the tiny studio. Usually, I am satisfied with my handiwork and might sit back to watch reality t.v. But this Sunday night is different. I sit up straight in bed, with the pillow wedged between my back and wall, waiting just like I did when I was sixteen… for her. My ear tingles and I know she’s near.
“Ekpewan?” I say. No sound comes back, but I know she’s listening.
“It’s time for you to go.” There’s no response, but in my belly I know she’s there. She might be squinting her eyes in discomfort, or pulling on one of my braids, whatever she’s doing I keep speaking,
“You’re from my mother’s side, you died when you were too young, and your life was hard. I’m sorry for that. I hope when you dance you find peace, and I hope you’ve learned what you’ve come here to learn, but I’m ready to move on now. I like my doors and gate locked, and I want to know who’s in my room and why they’re here. That wasn’t the deal between you and me before, but it’s got to be the deal we have now. So I’ll see you when I’m too old to be alive, and you can take me from this world into the next, but for now, my life is my life. Go away.”
I stare at the floor I scrubbed, the table I disinfected with Lysol, the mirror I wiped down with white vinegar. I sit until something shifts in my belly telling me she’s gone for good. That night, I turn on pop and R&B music and add some Fela and other songs I heard in the restaurant to my growing playlist. I twirl and stomp on the floor. I look up different spices online that I will use to make an okra soup similar to my mom’s. Later that night, I draw another picture of my future self. This woman is still tall, still wearing hooped earrings, with box braids hanging past her shoulders. I draw dimples under her cheeks and give her firetruck engine red lips to add an extra punch to her picture. The fear she has known is slowly draining out of her body, that’s why her knees don’t ache so much. She has sturdy legs, and she’d rather use them to walk than fly. I put the finishing touch on the woman, I draw her with her mouth open rather than closed. This time around, the woman on the paper has something to say. Under the picture I write, I, Arit Essien, ask for help… I feel satisfaction at my handiwork. The woman I drew is a woman made of her own efforts. She is made from sweat and elbow grease. I bask in this. Until… a feeling. My right hand, the hand I use to draw this woman turns cold. My intestines twist and tighten making me want to faint. My face heats up, reminding me of the many blows I endured as a kid. My leg twitches, as if it is ready to run leaps and bounds or dance forever. But I won’t let this part of myself take over. I’d rather curl up in a ball and wish for everything to go away. The only one who knows this part of me, the part that wants to dance between two worlds is the ancestor I cast away. Ekpewan.
I will bind myself to her
wrestle with her
Swallow her whole
if she dare think
she can wipe me out
Unless she peels off her skin and burns her flesh
She is part of me
Her face and gait do not belong only to her
I’ll be seeing her again.
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