This story took my breath away. It did so on the first reading, and on the second, third, and fourth readings. I have read it over and over trying to figure out how its writer accomplishes so much in such a small space. Every sentence and image counts. Amazing how it shows the ways women hurt themselves and each other, and the way men, with all their grotesqueness, get away.
Randa Jarrar, 2017 Prose Judge
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Laide takes stock. Of everything. Of the way people move, the way their clothes sit, the way they smile and breathe. When she was younger she used to draw faces. She has sheet after sheet of people’s faces, drawn over and over and over, till they become what she wants them to become. She has gotten slapped more than a few times for staring too much. So she learns to not fixate her gaze, to allow a languorousness set into her eyes that almost never leaves. For her languorousness, she adds a smile. A smile balances things out, a smile adds light, a smile adds agenda.
This is the way she is looking when Teju and his wife enter; she is legs crossed, drink in hand, leaning forward with a smile on her face, touching a friend on the wrist as she tells her a story. Her friend laughs and Laide looks around, takes stock of the mirage the marbles form, of Teju’s wife’s shoes as she locks her arm into his as though she cannot hold herself, of Teju.
Laide has always been particular about the way things should be. Her mother never has to ask Laide to clean the floors or the sink. She has clothes she does not wear because they don’t fit her the way she wants them to. She fights with tailors and attends a sewing class after a barrage of botched clothes. So for Teju, maybe it was the lighting, maybe it was the way his wife clung to his arms, or maybe it was the way he did not smile after he said something to her that made her laugh or it was the way he moved as if he deserved to be clung to. Whatever it was, Laide knew something would happen.
Laide starts to steal when she is eleven, with easy and undistinguishable items; hair bands and lip-gloss and pens. When she is thirteen, her mother empties her room, removing items she does not know or did not buy. The memory of her mother hurricaning in her room is forever. Her mother flings things from the wardrobe, flips the bed over and harvests things she does not recognize. Her mother throws Laide into the nearest wall, watches her slide onto the floor, raises her and holds her neck between wrists and elbow, says “This is what will kill you.”
When she is describing her mother to Teju, on a night when it is raining and he is drawing irregular circles around her nipples, she says she does not remember feeling her feet, she says every possible feeling was in her new breasts that night. She tells him things she does not tell anyone else.
“How did she know you were stealing?” he asked.
“I stole a bra from our neighbors’ line. My mother wouldn’t get me one. She said it would stunt their growth.”
“Stunt?” One hand pulls a nipple as he laughs, the other moves to her hair. He drags fingers through the path between plaits; when he is done, he holds the collective tip and pulls hard.
Laide believes in hair. She can control it. When she is fourteen, her mother sends her to Badagry Comprehensive All Girls College. The girls with the smallest hairs pay her extra to “just do something” with their hair and the senior girls used to make her do theirs. Only a few of them paid. They liked the neat plaits, even though they did not like how tightly she held the strands before beginning. When people ask her how she got so good, she tells them how she used to plait her mother’s hair. When she does her mother’s hair, she pulls at the strands, at the tiny baby hairs at the tips, removing, in the process, the lines and wrinkles in her mother’s forehead. Her mother’s face becomes smoother. So even when Laide wears her wigs and weave-ons, she has her hair done tightly underneath it all. It is not until Teju licks her scalp and tells her “I love when your hair is like this”, that she stops using wigs and weave-ons.
The next time they are together, she takes him in completely with a muffled slosh. She has read somewhere that there is a way you love someone that make them yours. She feels his tip in her neck. He holds her head as he spasms. There is a lot of fluid: semen and spit and tears. Her hands move to her throat several times the next day, there is a taste in her throat that won’t go away. Once, she feels as though she is wearing those choker necklaces with sharp stones.
There was the woman calling her a thief, a man-stealer on Facebook. And she does not reply, because what to do, what to say? Teju’s wife sends her captioned picture after captioned picture of damaged women: women with acid-scarred faces (this is what will happen to you if you don’t leave my man alone), women without teeth (choose which pain you want), women with blade-split lips (this one will fit you). Ordinarily, she would let go, but she was not finished. One day, the woman knocks on her door. And even though Laide has languorousness and smile, she knows it does not always work, it does not work as much on women. The woman holds up a picture of Teju in one hand and a knife in her other.
“You do not take things that do not belong to you.” The woman says and cuts. + + +