My aunt Oluomachi has what people call a familiar face. At least once every week, someone walks up to her to say hi. The conversations always include a muddled mentioning of dates and names of places when and where she is supposed to have been present and met said persons. Aunty Oluomachi is now accustomed to the experience and these days she will just feign attentiveness and furrow her brows as the person explains how they can swear she was the one they met in Kano state during their National Youth Service Corps and she will touch them lightly and say “nne, sorry oh. It really wasn’t me”. One time, in Wuse market, a woman got so upset with her for not recognizing her and began to call her a liar
“but Ifeoma, why are you lying?! I’ve forgiven you for stealing my boyfriend! It’s been ten years, I just wanted to greet you. Na wa for people oh! Ngwanu bye bye oh”
Half the time, the people sounded so convincing that I would start to ask my aunt immediately after they had left if she was sure she didn’t know them. She would laugh and say “Nne, this thing started even before you were born. Just leave it”
Aunty Oluomachi has lived in our house for as long as I can remember and I still do not completely understand exactly how we’re related and whenever I ask, my mother asks me why it matters; “she is your aunt. she does not have to be my sister or your father’s to be your aunt” This is how my mother says these kind of things, like she has made some new rule, something indisputable, because she says so. My ‘”aunt” says her and my mother’s grandmothers are related and that’s how we are related. Saying that aunty is funny isn’t enough to describe her, not because she isn’t, but because her brand of funny is different. She isn’t laugh-out-loud funny or think-for-a-sec or find-the-joke kind of funny, she’s incredulity->thigh-slapping-eyes-leaking type of funny and says things like “this my familiar face, I hope some doppelganger of mine hasn’t already snatched my soul mate”.
My mother and aunt aren’t the most common kind of women. Husband-less and with children. This is probably the real reason why it’s hard for aunty’s soul mate to find her; her son, Ebuka is in the way of the searchlight. Probably.
Every month, my mother and aunty have a meeting in my mother’s bedroom. They discuss family issues like the budget and what boarding school Ebuka should attend. They lock the door and put on the generator even if there’s already light so that we can watch the television without interruption. My sisters and aunty’s son and I would watch the television until the usually hour long meeting was over. As we got older, we didn’t need the television to keep us away; my sisters visited friends and later, boyfriends and Ebuka always went out to play football with his friends and I would read in the room I shared with my sisters. My eldest sister says the way I like to read is strange. I sleep on the top bunk because it feels like living on the edge, with our low ceiling so close to the bed, it’s almost claustrophobic. I read slowly and take breaks between every few sentences to look at the ceiling and ‘watch’ the characters act out their scenes.
I am a skinny twelve year old with knocked knees and shy, painful mounds on my chest when it happens. I walk past my mother’s room on my way to our kitchen because claustrophobia dries up my mouth, and then I hear the sounds, muffled moaning like someone getting beat up with their mouths covered and the creaking of the decrepit bed in mother’s bedroom. My head starts to tell my legs to stop walking, to stop or just turnaround and walk away, but my hand is already on the door handle and even though I expect it to be locked, I turn it and push the door open.
Ebuka is standing outside my house in Festac telling me how his mother died the night before and how mama wants to see me because it’s been too long. No one knows why I rarely ever come home anymore and when all my sisters call me on the phone and hurl accusations from varying distances, I want to scream and ask them why they never asked questions, why they did not care to know who our father was or did they know and simply never tell me? That’s what hurts. That’s the wall that keeps growing and standing between us; all the questions, no one is asking. Everything that is so normal to them and isn’t getting questioned.
I give Ebuka water from my fridge and tell him I will come home because someone needs to ask.
When my mother sees me, she starts to smile and then she’s crying. I have been home for a day when I go to her room for a meeting.
“Who is my father?”
“I know that’s not all you want to know. You are like him. Erratic, curious and a little too hardhearted. He still lives in the country but he has a new family. He thinks that what I am runs in my blood and he doesn’t want daughters like me. I will give you the address of his family’s house and maybe he will have changed his mind”
I can hear the gears in my head turning and my heart is beating so fast because she just acknowledged that what I saw years ago wasn’t something I imagined.
I take the piece of paper even though I know I will never go there.