I know people will judge me, but just before you also do, let me tell you a little about myself. I know you would naturally want to know my name, age and where I was born and other mundane stuffs but like Bartleby, I would prefer not to talk about all of that. I live in Brooklyn, this should satisfy any curiosity on your part; but if it doesn’t, well, I also for a long time lived in Lagos.
Lagos was where I grew up, I mean, until my father came home one night with delight pouring from his face, his hands flying in jubilation as he hugged my mother while breaking the news to her. I was young at that time, just about to clock eight but up until that day I had never seen my father or my mother happier. Their faces exhibited joy injecting a feeling of elation on us children, as my brother, Segun, and I also became happy – although I at that moment couldn’t grasp what the cause was. I guessed we were happy too simply because happiness of parents is contagious to their children. A month later the consequence of that night’s joy transpired in our landing at John F Kennedy Airport. I would later gather that my father had won a visa lottery.
Other than the sadness that comes with changing of environment and the missing of friends, I really loved our new house. I mean, there were not that much of space or places to go and play but overall it was better than being in Lagos. For one, we ate three times a day—not counting snacks; and had plenty time to watch TV. But the TV time dissipated later as we began school. Light, unlike in Lagos, was never tampered with. And most importantly, dad and mom were always looking radiant. Their eyes were always flickering and smiles could be seen on their lips time to time. On Sundays we would go to a mosque where many Muslims from Nigeria would gather and recite Adhkar and pray together; there we met our age mates and found substitutes for our friends in Lagos. On weekend nights, we used to either watch Yoruba movies together or listen to dad tell us stories of Ijapa—tortoise, the cunningly wise one. But like every other thing in human life, this time of elation and normalcy was ephemeral.
Things began to change the moment we started school and our parents became busier. For me it wasn’t that much of a challenge, but on Segun, it took a toll. Segun was four years older than I am and really brilliant, so when time came for us to start school, he was enrolled into middle school. I, on the other hand, just reaching my eighth year in life was enrolled into third grade. I loved my classmates at third grade; they were so nice to me, and we quickly became friends. I also loved my teachers, more than those mean ‘aunties’ in Lagos who incessantly visited one’s buttocks with canes and were notorious in using rulers for what it wasn’t made for. My teachers here, especially Mrs. Courtney were nice and cool. We used to have lots of fun in her class: painting, dancing, gardening, and doing other interesting stuffs.
Sadly, Segun wasn’t having that much of fun. First, he was bullied a number of times by some stupid boys and was usually teased for his strange accent. Segun was a stutterer so when frustrated he found it really hard to speak. If he tries to speak, the only thing that ensued were tears. Whenever he tried to talk back to those making fun of him, he would weep, and this furthered their jest of him. My parents weren’t aware of the pains Segun was going through until they were summoned by the school administration because of my brother’s poor performance. And that was when the whole bully thing surfaced and fortunately it was battled by my parents. The bullying became a thing of the past because Segun changed school and my parent made sure that he didn’t go through such an experience again.
I cannot forget the day he graduated from middle school as the valedictorian. He was given a special seat among the special guests and school staffs and he made a long, nice speech. When he finished his speech that noon, I couldn’t help the tears dripping on my face as I saw my mom using the end of her Iro to mop the water escaping from her eyes while sniffling. The teachers and principal spoke about my brother in such a way that my love for him increased amply. He even received a standing ovation!
My father wasn’t there that noon to witness my brother sashay on to the podium because he had to work, but we recorded the graduation ceremony and played it for him when he got home that night. I know what you are thinking: what about me, right? Yes, I was one of the top students in my class at grade six and following the foot step of my brother was the valedictorian of class 2013, the year I said good bye to middle school. Things by now had begun to fall apart but a sense of normalcy still permeated the house for the most part.
High school came with new and perilous problems. It might be an overstatement when I said I followed my brother’s footsteps by also graduating as valedictorian because the truth is by the time I got to my last year in middle school and Segun in his second year in high school, the valedictorian in Segun had gone on exile, a type of exile which the person never returns from. I knew Segun had changed in a very bad way and I promised myself not to follow his new path. I would focus on my studies and wait for my sweet and nice brother to come back and things will go back to the way they used to be. There would be no more quarrels in the house because my father used to admonish Segun using harsh tones and this used to pit him against my mother who detested such method. I indulged in optimism and refused to be a cynic. It is just a phase he is going through, as my mother used to say.
So what kind of phase did Segun go through? Well, Segun started to drink, he tried to hide it from my parents but they later found out. He started to have girlfriends, although I saw and still see no cause for alarm in this, my parents however found it worrisome, especially my father. He started to do lots of things, including stabbing classes but it would be pointless to keep ruminating about all his vices. But, like I said in the beginning, don’t hasten in judging him either.
One night, or more appropriately that night, Segun came into the house earlier than usual. This made me happy because it promised a night free of shouts. We watched TV together, and yes I remember, it was CSI: MIAMI that was been aired when my dad entered. He greeted us as he made way into his room. Minutes later he dashed into the living room. His eyes were red and his nostrils flared. He regarded my brother for a long time and then in a thunderous voice: “Segun did you take my money?’’ he asked in Yoruba. Whenever my dad talked to us in Yoruba a huge problem lurks behind. ‘’No, I didn’t,’’ Segun answered with a smirk. The atmosphere in the living room became hostile, my heart started pounding and I really thought I would collapse. Tension rose as my father continued to ask, anger pouring from his mouth. My mother who was in the kitchen hearing the hot exchanges entered into the living room. ‘’Segun, if you took your father’s money, say the truth now,’’ my mother also joined in Yoruba. Segun insisted.
It all seemed like a dream to me: one moment my father was by the TV and the next he was by Segun pulling up his shirt and showing the big tattoo Segun had just gotten on his back. My jaw dropped as no one knew Segun had gotten tattooed except for my father apparently. ‘’Then where did you get the money to do this?’’ My father asked, his stern grip on Segun’s hand. ‘’It’s none of your business,’’ Segun retorted. ‘’None of my business?’’ My father’s hand rose and landed on Segun’s cheek. And the house went on fire. My brother pushed my father and his back hit the edge of the table. ‘‘Fuck you!’’ Segun jeered. I looked at my father and hot tears rushed down my face. My father’s face said it all. Consternation. Regret. Annoyance. Sadness. Melancholy. Disappointment. I looked at my mom and she had begun crying too. She rushed to my dad, tried to pull him up, but my dad gave her a look, and she retreated. She started at Segun whose face was still unbelievably stoic, unperturbed by the abomination he had just committed, she said all kinds of things to him but Segun just walked past her and egresses the house never to be seen again.
I know you’re thinking but this is about your brother not you. Perhaps what you don’t grasp is that while some externalize problems, others internalize them. Plus, what I would do in many people’s estimate would transcend all Segun did. I was getting damaged internally.
When I got to high school, mom had finished her studies and had become a nurse. My father also left his job as a store manager and wanting autonomy became a cab driver. And with the changes in their schedules, our lives changed also. They both had to work on Sundays so going to the gathering of Nigerian Muslims every weekend became a thing of the past. Whenever my dad got home, he was too tired to engage either of us or to put his head down in prayer to God. And the same thing applied to mom on her off days, and that is if she wasn’t mandated for overtime. So while Segun got broken externally, I suffered internally.
The news came through the mouths of the elders of the Sunday program we used to frequent at the early days of our being in America. My brother was shot three times by a police officer because he was resisting arrest. My father’s face grew dark as the Imam recounted to him what the police had told them. As for my mother, she slid into unconsciousness. 911 had to be dialed on her behalf. The EMT came swiftly and transported her to the hospital. After three days she was back but in another way she didn’t quite return. After two weeks mourning, she went back to work.
It turned out my mom was too quick in returning to work. One day I received a call from the hospital where she worked and they asked that my dad come to the hospital as my mom had gotten ill. My father and I went and to our surprise we were taken to the psychiatric section of the hospital. We first got to a gate where the security officer, a white man with wrinkled face instructed us to deposit any metal object we might have with us. We got to another desk where a Hispanic lady, with curly hair and painted lips handed us blue paper wrist bands. The wrist bands, she explained, would distinguish us from patients. Then we walked into what appeared a dining room and we were asked the name of our relative by a young lady who wore a light blue uniform similar to those worn by nurses and on her ears were dangling earrings. Tears rolled down my cheek as my father mentioned my mother’s name. I couldn’t believe my mother was now a crazy woman. In no time, she came in walking slowly. I ran and hugged her and she held me tightly to her and wiped away my tears. ‘’Stop crying,’’ she begged me. She looked totally fine to me, I mean not like someone with a mental issue. She looked sad, yes, but not crazy. We talked with her, and my dad also broke down in the course of the meeting. ‘’Why is this happening to us?’’ my dad lamented, tears dripping from his eyes.
Why they held and still hold my mother, I really don’t know. They claimed she had been saying things and acting in odd ways so her colleagues saw it prudent to call the psychiatrist. The trauma caused by the death of Segun, the doctors explained, broke her away from reality and made her slide into schizophrenia. Because she stood a danger to us, they pontificate, she won’t come home until they pump her with drugs. I knew they were lying but I was powerless. My mother was just in shock, that’s all. Similar thing happened to her when she lost Lola my little sister while we were in Lagos. I was six then but I knew she went through rough times but she had family support and eventually got over the shock.
Yesterday I visited my mother again and what I saw was disheartening. She sat silently in front of me, her face speaking of intense sadness. I spoke to her but she didn’t respond except for her occasional nodding. She at some point, began to drool so I asked to speak with the nurse as to why she was drooling. ‘’That’s how they do after using medication,’’ she said in a phony voice. My heart sank. My mother was now part of ‘they.’ I got ready to leave and as I stood up tears began gushing out profusely from her eyes. She gave me a look and then cried more. I didn’t weep in front of her. I tried to calm her down but I cried my eyes out on my way home.
I got home feeling down and I needed something to lift my spirit. I went to my father’s room to see if we could just talk but I saw him on the phone remonstrating with someone. I didn’t know the person he was talking to but I knew it was about some money my father had sent home but had been diverted to what he didn’t approve of. I called my friend, Natasha, to see if she had something fun we could do, and it turned out she had. Her mother was not home, she said, so I could come over and I could hang out with her and her boyfriend. Without thinking about it, I obliged. When I got to her house it was as she said but with an addendum of her boyfriend’s friend. I knew she planned for us to double date but I didn’t care. I just wanted to chill. We planned to go out and watch movies but we had to take care of our hunger. Natasha’s boyfriend ordered pizza and uncapped a bottle of wine. We ate and drank.
It was one o’clock in the morning. I looked around Natasha’s room and she was not in sight. I staggered from the bed, feeling groggy and sensing pang about my pelvis. The last memory I had was raising a glass cup to my lips and having a sip of the red wine. I walked into the living room where I found Natasha watching TV. Our gazes met and in her eyes was a palpable concern. ‘’You’re awake? How are you feeling?’’ I didn’t do as little as look at her not talk of responding. I walked slowly and got a hold of my handbag on the dining table and left the apartment without a word between us.
It was now about one thirty in the morning. The night was placid and chilly. I checked my phone and I had about forty voice messages all from my father. He would be worried to death. Natasha’s place was around Williamsburg so I tried to find my way to any nearby train station. At first I considered going home but then what was at home except a broken father. So I decided to head for Grand Central. I like Grand Central train station because it displays the city’s diversity at best. I got off from the 4 train and went down to the N line. It was the first time I would be at the station at such time. The bustling station was resoundingly quiet at night. Only a few people could be seen on the platform. A man who looks sleepy sits at the other side of the platform while a lady with disheveled hair leans on the wall with her is a baby sleeping inside the stroller. I sit on this wooden bench scribbling on this paper awaiting the train through which I hope my anguish would vanish.
As I sit here, events of the last few years began to flash through my mind. I closed my eyes and saw them pop out one by one. Father’s voice on the phone. Mother’s situation at the psych ward. Segun’s ordeal. Quarrels at night. Natasha. My skimpy clothes. Prom night. Being a valedictorian. I kept seeing things until the sight of that night, in our house in Lagos when my dad came in celebrating the visa lottery revisited me. Then I remembered four years ago when we went to Lagos and how my friends and cousins at seeing our fancy clothes and shoes told me they wished they’d been in our shoes. Thinking of Bartleby, a voice came to my head: happiness courts the light so we deem the world gay. But misery hides aloof so melancholy we perceive as nonexistent. Ah! If only they knew.
Dear Reader, the train is now making its way into the station so this is where I lay my pen to rest. Farewell.
Wow so much said in so few words.
LikeLiked by 1 person
LikeLiked by 1 person
I particularly loved the transition from those early happy days to the tragic events in the latter part of the story. It was covered in stealth, almost unrecognizable, until you get to the end and ask yourself, “how did they get to this point?”. Very beautiful, Toyeeb.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you so much for this review.
Tohib,as usual, I was glued to the story!You sure have a way with words.More power to your elbow
This is iconic and ironic all at once. Very gripping story. Grand Central where I had lost my orbit on my first visit to New York. This could have only been innate.