Monday, July 1, 2013

Hearts of Steel: Chapter 5

It took a few minutes to figure out where I was. When I opened my eyes, I was a little disoriented. My room didn't feel like my own. It was. It was just my room of several months ago.

Without moving my head, I let my eyes scan the contents. I had to squint, because sometime during the morning, someone had drawn back the curtains and opened the miniblinds. Probably my mother. She was a firm believer in the power of fresh air to cure all ills. She'd also opened the window a crack so that a steady, whistling breeze cut through the room.

She'd been doing that since I was in secondary school, when my body had started to go through the change - during what my older brothers affectionately called 'The Musty Years.' Between the ages of eleven and fourteen, I went through a lot of Secret and Love's Baby Soft. We should have bought stock in those companies.

The morning breeze rattled the glossy paper of my posters. These posters covered almost every inch of wall space. My Secondary School Certificate, with the cracked picture frame from when I'd thrown my size-six shoe at my brother for sneaking into my room, made a soft thump-thump-thump against the wall. How old was I then? Fifteen? Sixteen?

Above my head were strung several decorative fishnets that held all of my stuffed animals and baby dolls. There were so many, it was a minor miracle that they hadn't come crashing down to crush the life from me. Teddy bears won at trade fairs, hearts given on Valentine's day and enough Barbie dolls to stage own beauty plastic pageant. They all swung precariously overhead, obviously staring at the microcosmic world of a young girl's room through button eyes. Even the ones with the eyes that my brother Dozie had picked out with a screwdriver seemed to be doing their best of keeping their toy vigil over me while I slept.

God, it was good to be home.

In my apartment in Accra, I hadn't had the time, money, or inclination to decorate, to give my new place a sense of home. I had one lonely ivy plant, badly in need of water, that was sitting (wilting, actually) in the terra-cotta planter that my Uncle Edward had given me as a going-away present. That was one of the few items in my bedroom in Accra that gave me any indication of where I'd come from.

One of these days, I thought as I stretched languidly, I was going to repot the thing and give it a new lease of life. Or - I yawned and rolled over, pulling the covers over my head - I could wait for the last of the yellow leaves to drop off and save me trouble.

It's not that I didn't care about the gift my uncle had given me. I did. I took very good care of the terra-cotta planter. I dusted it once a month, whether it needed it or not. Sometimes, I think I could hear the voice. "You know, a little water won't break the thing."

I tried to go back to sleep, but my cousin Brenda, who'd spent the night with us, was singing in the shower softly to herself.

Okay, not so softly and definitely not in key. I didn't mind listening to her caterwaul. I was surprised and pleased that shek'd agreed to sleep over.

No mystery when I found out why. Her own home was full, with overflow relatives who'd come in at the last minute to attend my grandparents' anniversary party. Some folks from my grandpa George's side of the family had decided at the last minute to show. One of them, Brenda said, was a chain smoker. Another was rumored to have an overactive bladder. No, she'd said as diplomatically as she could to her parents, it was best if she found another place to crash for the weekend.

Listening to her now, I was reminded of the time we'd put on a talent show when everyone had come over to celebrate my mum's birthday. No, I take that back. We weren't really celebrating her birthday. Because if you ask my mum every year on the day rumoured to be her birthday, she'll give her age as twenty-five. She's been giving that same answer for about twenty years now. Can't call it a birthday party if the responsible party won't admit to getting older.

So, on the day rumoured to be her birthday, we'd eaten cake and ice cream, danced to old records, and played dominoes until the wee hours or the neighbours called the police on us. It's not clear in my memory which event came first.

Brenda, Joy, and I had done our version of Tina Turner's theme song to the movie 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.' It was a routine that brought the house doen.

The refrain still echoed in my head. Maybe with adequate psychotherapy I'll be able to get that song out.

We'd gelled and teased our hair so that Tina would have been jealous of our dos and sneaked fishnet stockings from my brother Mike's room. Skirts pinned tight and enough lipstick to compensate for our preteen pouts, we'd sung and strutted our stuff.

Come to think of it, I don't think either of us sang very well then, either. It was the effort that we'd put into it that made my mum, Aunt Ebere, and Aunt Pamela clap so vigorously and hug us so tightly that we thought our ribs would crack.

I was still grinning at the memory when Brenda stepped out of the bathroom with a huge towel wrapped around her torso and another on her head. She'd slept in the daybed beneath the huge window in my room, having made enough room for herself by pushing more of my stuffed animals onto the floor.

"You're awake now, Sleeping Beauty?" She greeted me.

"Did you save me any hot water?"

"I think I left you a couple of drops," she teased, wrinkling up that cute freckled nose of hers. She sat on the edge of the bed, pressing her thick, black hair between the towel to dry it. For a moment, I experienced a moment of jealousy. You could stick a bird's nest in Brenda's hair and she would still look good - naturally.

I, On the other hand, have to work at it. Not just work. Getting my hair so that I'm happy with it is a major undertaking. It takes hours of planning, preparation, and implementation.

I have what I affectionately call "in-between hair." Not good, not bad. Not long, not short. If I'd entered my head of hair in a beauty pageant, I would probably walk away with the Miss Congeniality award. It tries so hard to be good. But every now and then, Lord help me, every now and then, it does what it wants to do no matter how I cajole and threaten to shave my head bald.

Since I'm so much on the go, I don't have time to fool with it. I pay others a tidy sum to do it. Yvonne over in Accra does wonders with a human hair weave. She doesn't own a shop. She's just a lady who does hair.

I was lucky to find her. A friend of the lady who works in the mailroom in my building told me about the man who now sometimes does my nails about Yvonne.

She and her teenaged daughters, Jessica, Martha, and Erica, see me religiously, every eight weeks for no less than ten hours to wash, condition, tint, and braid. I go in as much for the gossip as I do for the gorgeous hair that results from the ordeal.

"Gee, thanks. You are so kind."

"Don't mention it." Brenda then reached into my nightstand drawer for the metal nail file I've always kept there. If I went to her room, I'd find one almost exactly like it by her bed. When we were kids, we'd bought matching nail files so that we could pry open each other's diaries and read them. That was, we rationalized, the best way to tell each other secrets without openly confessing. If either of us ever got caught doing something wrong, we could honestly say to our parents, "She never told me that!"

Brenda curled one long leg under her, and bent the other knee so that she could rest her finger on it while she filed. Her voice was slightly broken by the vigorous filing action.

"So, are you going shopping with your parents today?"

"Do I have a choice?" I asked, pulling a long face.

She wasn't fooled. As much as I complain about my parents - and what recently left-the-nest child doesn't? - I loved being around them.

"Of course you always could stay here," Brenda suggested. "But you know how good Aunt Doris is at finding sales. She knows how to sniff out a good bargain. If you're not there when she finds one, you're going to be kicking yourself."

"I know. I'm still kicking myself for the last time we went shopping."

I yawned and stretched again, thinking I'd sneak in a few extra winks before Mother came up to roust us out of bed.

"Come on, Priye. Get up," Brenda said. "I'm ready to play."

"I'll be up in a minute."

"No, you get up now!" She said, in a voice so much like my mother's, I almost shot straight up out of bed. For a minute, I was back in secondary school, jumping to the drill sergeant-like command of her voice.

"I know you don't want me to come up there," she went on to threaten. Brenda could almost imitate my mum as well as I could - she'd spent the night over at my house or me at hers so many times. We were so inseparable, we were almost mistaken for sisters. Me, Brenda, and my cousin, Joy.

I sat up, stuffed a pillow under my nightgown, and then plumped it under my backside. Standing up in the bed, I put my hands on my hips and strutted up and down, exaggerating my walk by sticking my butt out even further. My feet sank ankle-deep into the mattress as I paraded up and down the bed.

I crooked my finger and shook it menacingly at Brenda. "If you girls don't get out of bed, I am not driving you to school. You can walk to school for all I care. I don't know what you think this is. If you think that I was put on this earth to drive your behinds around all day, you've got another thing coming. This isn't a taxi service, you know. Burn up my fuel for nothing. Hmmmmph."

Brenda burst out laughing, trying to frown at the same time. "Oh, girl, you know your mother's backside is not that big."

"I know. I was doing your mum."

"I've got your mum for you!" Brenda leaped up and grabbed another pillow. She dove toward me, trying to swat me with it. She swung so hard, I barely got out of the way in time.

Oooomph! She caught me on the side of my head, and down I went, arms flailing to keep me from tumbling off the side of the bed.

"You've been practicing," I gasped, rubbing the side of my head.

"Nuh-uh. I haven't had a good pillow fight in years. You're just getting old and tired. You're just slow."

"Who's getting old?" I said huffily. "I'm not old. And if you weren't so 'flicted yourself, you could have knocked me into next week instead of missing me by a mile. Old? I've got your old for you."

"Girl, you know I'm just playing," she mollified. She paused and grinned at me. "You look good for your age."

I was only a few months older than Brenda, and she wasn't going to let me forget it.

"Seriously, Priye. You must be beating all of those business execs off with a stick."

"Yeah, with all the work I have to do, I don't have time to be thinking about men."

Brenda leaped forward and clamped her hand over my mouth.

"Shhh!" She said frantically.

"What?" I asked, my words muffled by the palm of her hand.

"Do you want someone to hear that?"

"Oh, no," I groaned, realization suddenly hitting me harder than Brenda ever could in a pillow fight.

"That's right." Brenda nodded. We looked at each other and said solemnly in unison. "The target."

I slid off the bed and tiptoed to my bedroom door. As I pulled it open just a crack, I winced at the creaking sound of hinges.

"Is anybody out there?" Brenda whispered.

I shook my head and blew out a breath with all the relief of a teenager sneaking past sleeping sentry parents after breaking a curfew.

"That was too close, P." She collapsed on my bed.

"This close to the family reunion planning meeting and you want to blab that you're not dating? That's like waving a red flag in front of a charging bull."

"Or a piece of cake in front of Uncle Edward." I giggled.

"You know how our family like to single somebody out every year to get hooked up at the reunion. Last year it was our cousin, Daniel. The poor man didn't stand a chance. One minute, he was winning the prize for coming the farthest to attend the reunion; the next thing you know, Grandma is throwing that registered nurse at him."

"Grandma swears to this day that the woman tripped." I repeated what I'd been told.

"And you believe her?" Brenda said incredulously.

"It was kinda suspicious. Unless the woman tripped over air. I don't remember anything that would make her fall on Daniel like that."

"Fall on him. Fall for him. However it happened, it was all carefully orchestrated. Our folks are the masters at it by now. Every other year, before, during, or after the reunion, you can count on a wedding."

"Or an engagement announcement," I said glumly.

"They switch off. Last reunion it was a male cousin. It's going to be a single girl this year. Boy, girl, boy, girl. That's how it goes."

"And I had to shout out that I'm not seeing anybody." I slapped my forehead. I'd even mentioned it to Aunt Rosa. It was like painting a giant bull's-eye on my forehead.

Brenda patted my shoulder as if in sympathy. "Girl, if you haven't got a man by the time you check into the hotel at the next reunion, you'd better grab one of those drivers. Pay him a couple of extra bucks to represent until the heat is off you."

"What about you, Bren? How's your love life?"

Though we'd been as close as sisters when we were growing up, we'd sadly grown out of touch. If it weren't for the special occasions like my grandparents' anniversary, a family reunion, or a wedding, I don't think we'd make the time to have these heart-to-heart sessions like we used to do. It made me sad to think that the girl who I'd shared everything with was now a woman who I knew so little about.

Brenda lowered her eyes and blushed. When she did so, it made the freckles across her nose stand out more.

"Not really," she said, toying with the edges of my dust ruffle.

"Not really?" I repeated, mocking her. "What does that really mean?"

She shrugged. "It means I'm seeing someone but not really seeing him."

"What does that mean? Is he poking you in the eyes every time you come near or what?"

"No!" Brenda laughed. It was an infectious laugh. No one who hears it can ever resist smiling a little in sympathetic humour. She could always make me laugh - even when the occasion didn't call for laughter. Like the time we both got caught trying to sneak out of school, sitting in the principal's office, trying to explain to parents who were beyond furious. . .closer to nuclear meltdown. Things probably would have gone better for us if Brenda hadn't made me laugh at the wrong moment.

Three weeks' grounding is a long time when you're seventeen. I still owe Brenda for that one.

"It's a little too soon to tell right now. I don't want to jinx it," she replied quietly.

I leaned close and pried open her right eye.

"What are you doing?"

"Do you remember how mother always said that she could look in our eyes and tell if we were sick or just faking to get out of going to school?"

"Yes, I remember. She was always especially suspicious on days she knew that we had exams. We had to be bleeding from the eyeballs before they let us stay at home."

"You got to stay home with bleeding eyeballs?" I exclaimed. "My mum dropped eye drop in my eyes and told me to get on to school."

"At least you didn't have to go to school with chicken pox. I told my mum that it wasn't an acne flare-up."

"She should have known better. You never had acne a day in your life," I grumbled. "Witch."

"It was my last day of SS3. Mother didn't want me to miss it. Most students give away momentos and sign yearbooks on the last day of school. I wound up giving the entire SS3 class chicken-pox. I'm sure they loved me for that. But that doesn't explain why you're prying my eyes open."

"I'm just checking to see if you look sufficiently lovesick to keep Grandma and the rest of the matchmaking militia from making you the target."

"But what about you? If they zero in on you, I'm sorry, P, I can't help you. Normally, I'd have your back. You know that. But not this time. This time, I can't stop them from hooking you up with. . .with. . ." Her voice trailed off. And suddenly, I knew that she knew something. Years may have passed since we'd last spoken to each other. But I knew that look. That look that said she'd let something slip without meaning to. All we Johnson women had that look.

I think Jack Deneen had seen that look on my face in the airport when I'd said out loud how that little Kwame should get his behind spanked for behaving like such a brat.

Brenda was trying to cover up that look now. I wasn't buying it.

"With who?" I demanded.

She shrugged and shook her head.

"With who? You know something, don't you, Bren?"

"Nooo," she quickly denied.

"Yes, you do! You traitor! You're in on it. They got to you, didn't they? How'd they do it, Bren? What did they promise you? That you'd be safe from their plotting for at least two years?"

"I don't know anything. You're talking crazy. You'd think I'd give you up?"

"To save your unmarried hide? You'd better believe it."

"Priye, I am so hurt," Brenda said, pressing her hand against her heart as if wounded.

"You don't know what hurt is," I contradicted. I was going to make Brenda tell me what she knew the only way I knew how. I grabbed her foot, upended it, then started to tickle her in the spot that I knew would send her into hysterical spasms of laughter.

"Cut it out, Priye!" Brenda flipped over onto her stomach - squealing, gasping, crying, and threatening all at once.

"You'd better tell me!" I shouted as I plopped down and straddled her thighs to keep her immobile. It was like trying to hold down a bucking steer.

"I'm going to tell Aunt Doris!" She warned.

"That's not all you'd better tell, Brenda Obazee."

"I told you. I don't . . .don't . . .don't know anything. Priye, cut that out before you make me wet the bed!" Brenda shouted conveniently, as Mother had just poked her head into the room. She had the pressed-thin lip look that she always got when she tried hard not to laugh.

"If you do, you'll be stuck here doing laundry while we're all out shopping. Priye, get off of her before you cut off her circulation or something."

"Yeah, and we have to amputate my legs," Brenda said, playing the sympathy card. "She's gotten heavy, Aunt Doris."

"Think about it this way. If we have to amputate, you could get the child's plate at the lunch today and save yourself some money." I said with exaggerated brightness.

Brenda launched another pillow at me. I ducked and pulled on the corner of her towel. I guess I thought of it as a symbolic exposing of her meanness.


"Oh please. Like we haven't seen those before."

"Will you two stop kidding around? That was your grandma on the phone. She'll swing by at ten o' clock to pick us up, and she expects us to be ready."

"Shop till you drop. Ching-ching!" I initiated the sound of a toy cash register.

"For a man for Priye," Brenda muttered under breath. I narrowed my eyes and wiggled my index finger at her. I still had some tickle power left, my warning told her.

"Get dressed and come down to the kitchen. I'm afraid all I've got is coffee. We'll stop and have a big lunch later. I think your grandmother has a special place in mind that she wants to try."

Brenda and I exchanged concerned, knowing glances. Grandma never did anything without a plan. If we weren't careful, we'd be fending off proposals from bus drivers.

"What was that for?" Mother asked, her lips pressed so tightly in the no-laughing line that they practically disappeared.

"What was that for?" I asked.

"That look."

"What look?"

"You know what look. That look that passed between you two."

"What look? Did you see a look, Bren?" I asked, turning to face her.

"I don't know. I wasn't looking." Brenda backed me up. Good old Brenda. I could always count on her, even after all of this time.

"Yeah, right. You two would back each other up if one of you said that the moon was made of cheese."

"That's Swiss, Aunt Doris," Brenda corrected, and planted a kiss on Mother's cheek.

"Oh, go on!" This time, mother did laugh, and gave Brenda a crushing hug. "It's so nice to have you here, Brenda. You should visit more often."

"Maaaaaaah-aaaaaahm! That's not fair," I said in my whiniest voice. "You didn't tell me to visit often." I pouted.

"That's because I like her better than I like you." Mother then patted my cheek affectionately before heading out.

"So, you're finally admitting it. I always knew."

"You two go on and get dressed. You've got about fifteen minutes before they honk for us."

No comments:

Post a Comment