I stood in my parents’ room on a December afternoon, face puffy, eyes bulging, pleading like a pupil trying to convince her teacher that she didn’t need homework.
My father turned to my mother, who turned to me and threw the burden of their eyes at me. ‘What exactly are you whining about, Chinenye?’ The heaviness in her voice hit me in the knees. I stamped my feet, my tears flowed.
‘I can’t do it! I can’t do it!’
I pranced around the room. I wanted to plunge deep into the mattress, or hit my head against the mirror on the wall until its shards bruised my face.
I loved my life. After I completed my National Youth Service in Lagos, a compulsory one year program for Nigerian graduates, I settled back in the city, refusing to return to Sokoto, to my family. I became the girl who left for work at dawn and returned late at night to eat an apple or two, bathe and collapse into bed. The girl whose weekend meant sleep and write and read. Whose Sundays didn’t need rice and stew to be complete, but rather an evening walk to a friend’s or a café. I became the girl who walked around the house naked, clothes strewn all over the floor. At twenty-two, I was still adapting to the indecisive and independent life of a young adult. I did not want to be saddled with my younger brother.
‘But you should be happy, Chinenye. You won’t have to be lonely anymore,’ my mother said.
‘It is not his fault that you are older, nne. It is the cross you carry as a big sister,’ my father advised.
Until Chimezie came along, everyone thought I was the weird one. My sullenness irked my parents and relatives. My fashion sense — flat sandals or sneakers while my peers went girly with high heel shoes — baffled my sisters. The big head that sat on my neck stunned my peers, and I bounced when I walked. Then Chimezie came along and gave weirdness a new definition. Here was a child who spent his early years wearing dresses and wigs. He cried on Sundays to tie a headscarf to go to church. He insisted on lining his eyebrows. All that dissipated with time, revealing a strong, resolute and disciplined teen. He had strict quiet time we all adhered to. He didn’t talk often, but when he did, his words were irrevocable.
But one day in 2014, he woke up and said: ‘No more school.’
He quit his pre-degree studies and said he wanted to be a filmmaker.
My parents sighed and let him go.
He was 17.
‘I can’t do this, Mummy! I can’t even look after myself. Why can’t he just stay home and go to the university like everyone else?’
When we were growing up, my father would don his best-starched kaftan, a red cap and traditional beads for our school’s Speech and Prize Giving Day. We often came top of our respective classes, my elder sister, me and Chimezie. My father would limp to the podium, leaning on his walking stick, and pose beside us for pictures. He’d never been to university, but swore we’d all hold at least a first degree.
‘Why doesn’t he just go to school, Daddy?’ I repeated, when my mother didn’t answer.
His face turned into a blank sheet, perforated only by the words: ‘He said it’s a waste of time.’
On the flight back to Lagos, I tried to draft a new plot, one that would welcome another character. Hard as I tried, my head couldn’t take it. I was a girl with her dream. I wanted to be the writer of my story, and the only character in that story.
Wincing from the pain of a stressful week, I stretched and dashed to the kitchen, mumbling and taking note of the food items that were finished. It was my first Saturday with Chimezie. And the kitchen had to be restocked.
At the market, women nudged me out of the way with their large arms. The prices were strange to me. I questioned the sellers who tried to shoo me off with mocking words and my tongue, alien to bargaining, gave in to their intimidation. By the time I was done shopping, my cumbersome load showed off its ignorance by hitting the behinds of women who turned, warning and cursing. By the time I got home I was drowning in sweat and praying that this new life did not suffocate me.
One night, barely two weeks after his arrival, I was in the kitchen making tea when a loud voice frightened me. I turned to find Chimezie sitting there. I exhaled, still not used to company. He announced that he had a meeting the following morning.
‘Do you know how I can get to the venue?’ he asked, casually.
I put the kettle down gently, and turned to face him. ‘You’re barely here two weeks. Who are you meeting with?’
He laughed, his usual way, shoulders brushing the sides of his neck. ‘I’ll be fine. Just give me the directions.’
My stomach became a river with four words swimming in it: Lagos, frauds, newbie, kidnappers.
At work the next day, I stumbled on the stairs. When I sat down, my legs trembled. My eyes were fixed on my phone, waiting for my calls to be returned. I counted out the hours on the wall clock.
Sometime after that, Chimezie fell sick. I was asleep when he tapped me. Yawning, I looked groggily at the figure before me. ‘I think I’m not well,’ he said. Rubbing my eyes to fully awaken, I examined him. I noticed that his full cheeks had vanished, his collar bones stood out, his arms felt light as I shook them and his legs had lost some flesh and hair.
I remember gasping and muttering I have failed, I have failed.
It is two years now since Chimezie moved in with me. After six months studying at the Royal Arts Academy, he worked hard to build a brand as filmmaker. He’s made some influential connections, shot a couple of films and is living his dream. He turned nineteen in January.
‘Well done o,’ my mother said when I sent her pictures via the family Whatsapp group of the gifts I had gotten him. ‘I’m so proud of you, Chinenye.’
I envy Chimezie: his freedom, focus, determination and passion. I feel like I’m saddled with the duty of looking after him; like watching an unplanned pregnancy sprout into reality. I feel the quiet joy of a new life springing out of me; the feeling of a superhero, of an extraordinary being ushering another into life. But I also feel like the sacrificial lamb, or the comma in a sentence; a mere means to an end. At such times, Chimezie would look at my exhausted face, sigh and say, ‘don’t worry, one day, one day’ one day being an expression he coined to mean when he would be ‘rich and famous.’
I look forward to that day. I will don my best outfit and like my father, pose beside him for a picture on the night he wins an Oscar. I will wave and grin into the camera and even as I write this, my skin is almost leaping off my body with the thought of me being able to walk around my room again, naked.
Bio: Jennifer Chinenye Emelife writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. In 2016, she participated in the Writivism Creative Nonfiction Workshop in Accra and the Short Story Day Africa Flow Workshop in Lagos. She’s co-founder and lead correspondent at Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature.