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The Curator’s Tale

 

Chika Onyenezi

Artwork by Olu Oguibe
 
 

Imagine six rooms (maybe booths), each with photos hanging in it, and you, a visitor.

1.

Three images hang on the wall:

1. Maria, a wife, thirty-four years old, squatty, and beautiful. She was married to John. She worked in an insurance firm as a secretary, in downtown of Houston.

2. Ben, a son, twelve years old, sharp-mouthed, ill-mannered, elementary school student.

3. John, an immigrant, thirty-eight years old, high school teacher, hard-working, simple, tall, and maybe could pass for handsome.

I don’t know how their relationship began. I know that John moved to Texas around the year 2000. Eager to make a living, just like any other immigrant, he started working hard. He took odd jobs at grocery stores, security posts, until he found a better one as a high school teacher. I knew these because he told me so.

John was a friend of mine, an admirable fellow. I had known him since my childhood days in Nigeria. We lost contact when he travelled abroad. On a college scholarship, I got to America, and started looking for him. With luck, I found him on Twitter, and we started having a conversation. Later on, he invited me to Houston, Texas. In summer vacation, I decided to visit him. I boarded a flight from Oregon to Texas.

He came with his family to pick me up from the airport. I saw them waiting for me, seated at the lounge. He was hugging the wife Maria, and their son Ben sat in the middle. I imagined a perfect family portrait at that instant. When he saw me coming, he got up, ran, and hugged me. I met the wife and son for the first time, and they welcomed me.

The third day was a sullen Sunday. The rain was falling, and I was bored. I sat in the living room reading a GQ Magazine. John had left earlier on for a meeting with his son Ben, and I was at home with Maria. Maria put on lingerie, strode like a cat into the living room, and walked towards me. She winked at me. I wasn’t moved; rather I stared hard at the pages of the magazine. I pretended as if I saw nothing. When she noticed I wasn’t moved, she walked up to me, touched my face, and put her breast on my skin, very close to my mouth. She smiled.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t do this, and I don’t appreciate it in any form,” I said, pushing her off a little.

“You African-ass fool,” she said. She walked away. I sat there, silent, thinking why she did this, trying to seduce her husband’s friend. My heart raced faster, I was scared, but I never said a word about it.

 
 

2.

We all drove to the lake, happy. The three of us — the boy, the father, and I were throwing football in an empty field. I was learning everything about America, how life could be here. The game of football fascinated me; it had nothing to do with legs. In Nigeria, football was what they call soccer here. The twist in language fascinated me too.

“So they make a lot of money with this?” I asked.

“Oh yes, more than you can ever imagine. This game has more money in it than any other game in America. Maybe my son will play it, won’t you play, Ben?” John said, turning to Ben, smiling.

“Shut up! You are not my father, my father will tell me which sports to play,” Ben said, almost screaming. I turned around to make sure that it was coming from the little boy. Well, there wasn’t any other one there. I was shocked. John smiled like he always does: like a fool.

“Don’t ever talk to him that way, not in front of me,” I said. I was really mad at him for insulting my friend, and his own foster father.

The boy started crying really loud. The mum heard him, left her fishing pole, and dashed towards me with rage. I stood my ground, waiting for her to act.

“What did you say to my son?”

“I just asked him to be respectful, at least.”

“No, no, no black-ass African monkey gonna tell my son how he gonna act, shiiiiiiit,” she said. That was the longest "shit" I’ve ever heard, I watched the corners of her mouth stretch across her face. John remained morose, arms akimbo. He looked defeated, like life had beaten him down. Suddenly, a strange smile lit up on his face.

“Woman, it's enough! It's enough! At least respect me. Respect that I have a friend around. What haven't I seen or heard from you? Can I ever have peace? Can I?” he screamed at the top of his lungs.

That should have been enough, but no. He ran to the lake and fell in like a rock. With no knowledge of swimming, he began to drown. I dove in and saved him. I swam ashore dragging his body along. A passerby helped me pull him out. People rushed towards us, and helped get him back to life. Someone wanted to call the ambulance, but John said he was fine. He sat up, smiling, or tried to smile in a painful way. People left when they heard he was fine. The wife was crying, hugging him.

“Oh, honey, so sorry. Honestly, why do you want to take your own life? Who will help pay the bills? Who will be a better father to Ben?”

“I am fine; I promised you I will always be there. I am fine.”

I wasn’t expecting him to say that. I expected him to hush her; tell her she was the person that drove him to attempt suicide. Maybe I was too young to understand these things about marriage. He took it all, like it was his fault. Maria petted his head roughly, like he was her dog.

“I love you, John,” Maria repeated a million times. I had to go find a tissue for her to wipe her tears with. With the evening ruined, Maria started the car, Ben sat beside me, John was in the front seat, and she pulled into the road. We drove back home in silence. All through the drive, I looked out of the window. I was lost in deep thought. How did we get to this? I needed answers, but I couldn’t find them.

We drove past a brown house, a medical center, a church, and then turned onto Whitehead Street. When we got home, home was silent, no one said a word. I walked into the visitor's room and lay down on my bed.

The boy walked into my room with a water gun in his hand and started spraying it all over me. I wanted to hush him or something, but on second thought, I kept silent and didn’t move. I didn’t want to start another suicide attempt, or anything. He laughed in contempt, even though he was just a boy, I thought his mind was twisted. I rolled over, stared at him, and covered myself with a blanket. I wondered what was wrong with the boy, why the mother wasn’t trying to correct him. He went back to his room and started playing his Xbox game.

 

"We are Africans, we can't lose our sanity. No matter what, an African man will always survive."

 

3.

Let me paint a picture for you.

John and I sat at Chipotle, eating burritos. His eyes were dour. He wasn’t happy. In fact, he was the saddest man I had ever met. I knew he had always shown signs of depression, but it was never this bad, never.

“Look at my hair, my brother,” he said and sighed. His hair was almost white. I bit a chunk of burrito. It was my first time having something as delicious as this; I knew I would look for it again. The waiter that suggested I try a burrito walked towards me.

“Do you like it?” she asked.

“Mucho. Muchas gracias, mi amigo,” I said.

“Gracias,” she said and walked away.

“Your hair is not bad,” I lied, and bit into my food again. I just wanted him to feel a little better about himself.

“You are just making me feel good about myself. I appreciate that though,” he said, laughing.

“But why are you still with this woman?” I asked. I had wanted to ask this question ever since he leaped into the lake.

He jammed his feet on the floor as though I shouldn’t have asked the question. His already sad face shrunk, more solid than ever, sadder than before.

“You see, I met this lady when I arrived in this city. Honestly, she is the reason why I am still here, she helped me a lot, and leaving is not easy. I made her a promise, and I want to be a man of my words. I want to treat her in all fairness, and I will.”

“Even if it means losing your own sanity?” I asked.

“Well, we are Africans, we can't lose our sanity. No matter what, an African man will always survive,” he said.

I remembered his attitude—he had always believed that life was pain, and only through pain could one ever make meaning of things. He saw it more as paying his dues here.

“All right, but even at that, at least the both of you should go for a marriage counseling. Does she have any history of mental illness?”

“Well, I think she is bipolar, but honestly, I don’t know. She never lets me get that close to her medical history.”

“It’s so strange that your wife shuts you out. It's terrible. That is the reason you should go for marriage counseling.”

“Well, I don’t know.” He looked away. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t leave or seek help—at least to save himself. I could tell he still believed she could be healed, like she needed exorcism or something, and probably with constant prayers, she would be all right. I knew that he still believed that somehow she could be whole again. I wanted to tell him about how she approached me indecently, but I refrained from adding to his sorrow.

“Well, just be careful, and remember that you can always seek help,” I said.

“I know.”

He was already dying inside for some strange reason. The sad part was that he still felt like his life had just begun, or he tried to make me believe. For some reason, a man that attempted suicide wouldn’t believe that he attempted suicide. He tried to convince me that it was just a leap, intended to change her. The strangest thing between the two of us was the absence of reality, it seemed buried, and he couldn’t even look at it.

 
 

4.

The little boy and the mother had a weird relationship.

1. John always got home late at night.

2. Maria wasn’t supposed to be home until six.

3. Ben was supposed to come back at two o’clock.

I wandered off into the woods to marvel at nature, listen to birds chirping, and enjoy the stridulating of crickets. It was beautiful out there. I walked the trail for a couple of minutes. Everywhere felt safe. I didn’t have to look over my shoulders like I was instructed by Maria.

When I got tired of wandering, I started walking back home slowly. I got to the apartment complex, swiped my key card, and the gate opened. When I got to the apartment door, it was wide open. I presumed Ben must have returned from school. I walked straight to his room. There they were, Ben and the mother kissing, rolling on the bed.

I thought I was dreaming or in a kind of a freak show. I walked back to the living room, and returned again. This time, to tell myself that I wasn’t dreaming. The mother was now sucking his little dick. I didn’t know what to do, to shout or maybe do something. I stood there for a while. After some time, I walked back to my room, and closed the door.

Later on, someone knocked on my door. It was Maria. She wore the same lingerie as the day she tried to seduce me, and a transparent nightgown over it. Her eyes were red, her hair fluttered, with a glittering smile on her face.

“When did you come back?” she asked.

“Just a couple of minutes ago.”

She grinned strangely, ran her hand over her head. “Are you hungry?”

“Yes, I am.”

She gestured me to follow her.

“Give me a few minutes,” I said.


"There are many things you Africans don’t understand. I live for no one, and he lives for his entire community. I am not afraid to be discovered, but he is."

 

I got up, took my bath, brushed my teeth, and joined her at the dining table. I found it hard to believe that she hadn’t seen me when I walked in on them. She made fried rice and fish. I sat down and dished the food for myself. She sat at the far end of the dining table like Miss Havisham in her ruined mansion. Ben was in his room playing a video game.

“You see, I can kill for my son,” she said.

I felt nauseated. I kept quiet, and slowly drank a glass of soda while keeping an eye on her.

“I love him so much. I had this boy before I even met John. His father abandoned us. He means everything to me. I have watched him grow over these years. I will protect him with everything I have in me, and I wouldn’t let any woman hurt him,” she said. I kept quiet. She smiled roughly, and continued, “Which school do you go to again?”

“University of Oregon.”

“Do you think it’s a good school for my son?”

“Well, yes,” I answered reluctantly and continued eating. I must confess that the food was really delicious. “I like the food,” I said.

“Thank you so much,” she said. “John taught me how to make that. I will still say it: he is the best father for my son. He has been there for him. He goes to all his games. He protects him. I don’t want my son to be like his father, I want him to be like John. John is decent and focused, the father isn’t.”

“You need to always make sure he is doing the right thing,” I said, almost sounding sarcastic. She ignored my tone. She smiled like she was on Molly or something. She kept on smiling for a while. Honestly, it was weird.

“Ben is handsome. Maybe the girls at Oregon University will break his heart. Maybe it’s the wrong place for him, I would like to keep an eye on him, damn,” she said and threw her hands up in the air.

I finished my meal and pushed the plate aside. I was getting a little bit irritated, but I didn’t want her to flip on me, so I sat there and listened.

“John is very responsible, he is my rock, my very rock.” She rolled her eyes up like she was caught in the spirit. “What was John like when you were growing up?”

“He was a good and kind man. But much older than me.”

“Yes, he is a very kind man. But warn him, if he ever attempts to leave me, I will shoot him dead. Houston will not be enough for the both of us.” All of a sudden, her mood switched.

At this point, I became afraid. The way she barked like a bulldog frightened me.

“I kept his ass in this country. I built him. I made him.” She rolled her eyes again, “I know that you guys barely divorce back home. But you come here, marry us and then divorce us. I know all ya black asses, monkey stinking butt.” She waved her red polished nails at me. I couldn’t figure out if she was taking out her anger on me, or John.

“But he has been a good man to you, why are you angry now?”

“I am not angry. I am a happy and kind woman,” she said in a low tone and with a smile on her face. Her mood was a wrecking ball, swinging from side to side.

“You see, I have a big heart—a very big heart. I have only asked John for one thing, a house. Look at where we are living, a three-bedroom apartment, how is that all right? Ben’s classmates live in a home. That nigger can afford to buy a home. Instead he chooses to send money to his parents in the jungle. That shit is terrible.”

I wanted to bash her. I wanted to tell her off. I wanted to say, Shut the fuck up, you piece of shit. But I held myself. My words could mean my own demise. Moreover, my holiday was coming to an end—I had already shifted the departure ticket at an extra cost of fifty dollars to a nearer date. For a student, it was a lot of money. But I was ready to go and embrace Oregon. Hug my silent room. Hug the trees waving close to my window. Hug those hippies passing through my street in their jumpsuits, shabby clothing, nose piercings, tongue piercings, tattoos, jingling ornaments, feathers in their hair, dancing in the sunset, and being glorious and happy. She kept talking on and on and on until she slept off. I quietly walked back to my room.

 
 

5.

There she was, seated on a cushion, smiling at him, pretending as though she was all faithful to him. Let me paint you a picture.

1. Anonymous: a fine man that lived by the lake. Tall, slim, and athletic.

John was ironing his shirts, and telling me stories about hard work in America. Maria walked in with her hand on her head. She said she was terribly sick and needed me to escort her to buy medication from a CVS pharmacy. John was happy to hear her say that; like I was going to make sure everything was fine out there; like I was a guarantee that nothing could go wrong.

I got into the car with her. She looked at me in her usual uncanny way and smiled.

“Do you smoke?” she asked.

“Yes, I do.”

“Wow, John said Africans don’t smoke.” I laughed, took a stick of cigarette from her, and lit it. She drove into the street like a maniac. I freaked out. She slowed down, and smiled. Instead of making a turn by the CVS, she kept on towards the highway.

“Please don’t tell John, I really have to go to a friend’s place and pick up supplies for Ben,” she said while turning occasionally to look at me. “Don’t tell him about this, I don’t want him to have an idea that is why I took you along.”

“No problem,” I said.

I stuck my hand out the window, and stubbed the ash. There was something comforting about the wind drifting over the car. I felt at ease. I doubted everything she said. There wasn’t anything to trust about her. I avoided making an eye contact with her. She parked on the street and at the end was a lake. A boat was tied to the pier. The house beside us was beautiful, and white. For a moment I wished that I could afford it.

“I will be back soon,” she said.

I sat and waited. My mind ran through all the school assignments I turned in before leaving Oregon, and how much pressure I was under before submitting them. My parents always asked me to make all A’s and be the best I could. I mean, I could only try my best.

Two hours later I got out of the car and walked across the lawn. When I got to the door, I wanted to ring the bell, but I decided to look through the window first. There she was with this fine man, she lay on her stomach and he was literally sitting on her back, naked, grinding her like she was wood. They were sweating. They never turned. They didn’t see me. I walked back to the car and sat down.

I felt like a cloud, drifting. Did John know about all these? Did he know she was all over anything that was a man, and could walk? Sad. Maybe that was why he aged so early, with white hairs all over his head. Maybe he got tired of even taking note of her actions. Maybe he didn’t even care if I slept with her. Maybe, in his soul, he has been thoroughly defeated.

Soon I saw her coming out. The door shut behind her. She had a bag in her hand.

“Sorry, I took so long. She asked me to stay for dinner. I hope you weren’t bored, I mean you could have played music.” She started the ignition and drove into the street.

“Do you think John’s parents will love me and Ben when they meet us?” she asked. Truly, I had never been horrified by a mere question until now. But I have learnt that anything could come out of her mouth whenever she opened it, even flies. So I wasn’t surprised, just horrified.

“It depends,” I said coldly.

“I know we have had our differences, but you don’t need to see me as a bad person. I am all gold, the best woman a man can have. If not for me, your friend wouldn’t have survived up to this point.”

“See, I don’t want to have any problem with you. I rarely speak, but if I do, I want it to be the truth,” I said.

“And what is the truth?”

“That you just slept with another man. That you sleep with your own son,” I said.

I looked out of the window as though I no longer cared about the consequences of my words. No matter what it was, I was ready to face it.

To my surprise, she started crying. It was the last thing I expected.

“Did you tell anyone about this?” she sobbed.

“John, no. Someone else, yes. I don’t trust you, it’s my insurance out of here. If anything happens to me, he will report everything to the police.” I wanted to put her on defense. There wasn’t any other way for me to get through this alive, I was in her apartment, and she could decide to end my life easily.

“What do you want?”

“Nothing. Tell him the truth, he deserves it, he has suffered enough.”

“About my son, he might not know. But let me tell you a story, I once fucked another man with him. When he came to marry me, I told him that I like fucking two men at the same time. I had a friend then, he fucks better than any man. John agreed to join us and climbed in the bed with us. He will never tell you, my friend even fucked him in the ass. After we got married, he begged me not to do that again. He said it was against his culture. You see, he might have an idea about this. He might even think right now that I took you out to fuck you.” She looked at me and smiled like a psychopath.

“There are many things you Africans don’t understand. I live for no one, and he lives for his entire community. I am not afraid to be discovered, but he is. Wherever he is now, he is afraid that you are fucking the shit out of me. Maybe he trusts you that you wouldn’t do that, but I doubt it, because I know him more than you do. So now what do you want me to tell him again?”

I froze. I wondered where I was for a second. Maybe Mars, or somewhere in Russia’s newly constructed utopian Jupiter home. For certain, here didn’t feel like home.

“Well, can you let him know about your son?” I said.

“About my son, I have told everyone that no woman will ever take him away from me. What do you think I was saying to you then?”

“Well, he doesn’t know that you actually have sex with him,” I said.

“You really think so? Or he is just swallowing it all? I don’t know. But, even if he does, he wouldn’t ask me shit. I have already studied your Nigerian ass shits. You telling him will only grieve him, not me. It will make him commit suicide, not me. I will go on living. He is afraid of his community knowing about his wife’s behavior, so he would do anything to protect me. It's not my shame, it’s his shame. Do you know we will travel to Nigeria this year? He has begged me to control myself over there. You see, I am not crying for myself, I am crying for your friend. It’s up to you to kill or keep him alive.”

“Please set him free,” I begged.

“Ah ah, not yet, he needs to put down the deposit on the house, and then after four years he can go wherever he wants to. That will be ten years of marriage.”

There was a chessboard, she was a master of her game, checkmating him at all corners. What will be left of him? What? I looked outside the windscreen. The air was cold, the night was darker than other nights; no stars, no moon, and a stark black heaven.

 
 

6.

It was my last day, I was eager to return to Oregon. For once, they seemed like a perfect family. Everyone was smiling. John was polishing shoes. When she passed him, he smacked her ass, and she giggled. The little boy helped set up the dining table, his manners were exceptional, and for the first time he said good morning to me.

I wondered if I woke up in the wrong age. I stood there watching, in awe. Everything about the family seemed perfect.

“Today is the day!” John said. He wasn’t being cynical about it, he was just being happy.

“I just want to tell you that it has been wonderful having you around. Whenever you are on vacation, please come visit us,” Maria said.

I wiped my eyes again, and again, and again. Now, it properly dawned on me that I was here, alive, before John’s family. It seemed like everything I had experienced from day one was a farce. Well, I joined the gaiety.

“Thank you all for receiving me, I mean it’s been wonderful. Thank you so much.”

I hugged the both of them, and Ben too.

“Can you play a game with me?” Ben asked me.

He never asked me before. I mean, irrespective of anything, he was still a boy. We sat down for a few minutes playing Lord of the Rings. After that, I showered, and it was time to leave.

We all sat in the car driving towards the airport. We cracked jokes along the way. I laughed so hard that I forgot all that ever happened.

“Do you remember the boy that beat the shit out of me back then in Nigeria?” John asked.

“Yes, I still do.”

We all roared into another round of laughter. I could still picture that day, how the boy dragged him from corner to corner, throwing punch after punch at him. John never gave up, he was relentless, and he preferred to die than give up. He remembered it differently, maybe as a symbol of resilience, even in the face of change. But I remembered it like he was suicidal, that was why he kept coming back for more punches.

“Oh, someone beat his ass up?” Maria asked.

“Really good,” I said. We all laughed again.

“Daddy, I would have helped you,” Ben said. It was the first time I heard him call him Daddy. He never called him Daddy throughout my stay, he always called him John. For a second, I thought I was crazy. But I convinced myself that it was almost over. But the way he said it, that was sweet, I felt for him.

“Don’t worry, you will have more opportunities to help him,” I said.

“Ben is a beautiful soul, he will be an engineer when he grows up, I will make sure of that,” John said.

"Living far from home, images build up in one's mind and become sharper and sharper, day by day, until they explode. Sometimes you adore them. Sometimes they greet you with nostalgia. Sometimes they expand, and burst like a balloon. Sometimes they turn into joy or sorrow. Sometimes they haunt you. Sometimes you haunt them.”

 

He drove into the airport parking lot. They helped me carry my bag to the check-in booth. I had a few hours more to go; they were kind enough to hang around. Maria decided to take Ben around the airport. We watched them walk towards the shops.

“Are you happy?” I asked John. He looked at me and smiled.

“Yes, I couldn’t have wished life was any better.”

“So, do you still plan on going home with your family this year?”

“Yes, we will. I know you recently came to America, has home changed that much?” It was the first and only time he asked of home.

“Well, a little bit. Everything is almost the same, or getting worse,” I said, smiling.

“It’s almost ten years without seeing home, and my aging parents. There will be no greater joy than to meet them soon.”

I could understand. Living far from home, images build up in one's mind and become sharper and sharper, day by day, until they explode. Sometimes you adore them. Sometimes they greet you with nostalgia. Sometimes they expand, and burst like a balloon. Sometimes they turn into joy or sorrow. Sometimes they haunt you. Sometimes you haunt them. There was nothing more beautiful than defining home from afar. I felt like I was a god, watching a tiny island called home.

When it was finally time to board the plane, I hugged all of them. I walked a few meters away, turned back, and looked at them one more time. They had smiles on their faces. A perfect family. John’s brown leather jacket glittered, his papas cap slanted towards the left. Maria looked outstanding in her red gown, smiling. Ben appeared so innocent. He wore shorts, socks, T-shirt, and sweater. I turned and walked towards the boarding area.