GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS

Beast Fiction: Lesley Nneka Arimah’s Wild

A glittering short story from the new collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky.

Two months before my first semester at Emory—two months I’d imagined I’d spend getting high in Leila’s basement while we crooned stale power ballads at each other—my mother sabotaged my summer plans with a one-way ticket to Lagos and a promise to purchase the return only after I’d earned it. A suitcase was already packed and my passport, whisked from my room the week before, was presented to me along with the ticket, relieving me of excuses. My plane left in four hours.

“I’ve just had enough. You can either go and stay with Auntie Ugo or work at the clinic with me, no friends, no visits, no nothing. It's up to you, but enough is enough.”

“Enough” had started with stupid teenage things that, magnified under the halo of Chinyere, my well-behaved cousin, made me a bad, bad girl. There was the misfortune of having my first kiss—with Bartholomew Fradkin, who shouldn’t even have been in my class but had been held back once in kindergarten, then again in third grade—witnessed by no less than four faculty members and three students. The resulting plague of rumors earned me a lecture from my mother—“You are not like these oyinbo girls, you can’t just do your body anyhow”—and an undeserved reputation as a bit of a ho.

“Enough” was the time my mother, looking to treat a headache, found the Ecstasy I’d thought cleverly hidden in an Excedrin bottle, and I came home to her making carpet angels. I joined her and we laughed and laughed till she’d sobered up and the laughing stopped.

Or when I was suspended for calling my Debate and News teacher a fascist cow because she refused to let me argue for abortion rights, an issue I didn’t feel one way or the other about until I was denied the option to support it. The suspension lasted a week and a half and that fascist cow scheduled a pop quiz every day I was gone, lowering my GPA by 0.07, enough for Emily Gleason (the fascist cow’s niece) to be valedictorian instead of me. When my mother found out, she screamed at me for an hour about responsibility and dedication and all the responsible and dedicated people who had made it possible for me to be here, starting with my great-grandfather, a mere goat herder, who no doubt was curled in his grave, weeping, and ending with my father, God rest his soul.

“You know, they told me to beat you.”

“Who?”

“Everybody. They said since you were being raised without a father and in America of all places, if I didn’t beat you, you would go wild. And I didn’t listen.”

“Well, are you going to start now?” My mother was a small woman who carried her weight in her personality. I had three inches and fifteen pounds on her. It would be tricky.

She just shook her head at me, wearing a helpless half sneer that asked whose daughter was this. It was a look I had seen many times.

“I’m sorry?”

“This is because of that girl,” she said, ignoring my apology.

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“That girl” was Leila, my best friend since the seventh grade. At first our friendship had been one of convenience, a forced camaraderie that came from being the only two nonwhites—and foreigners—in our entire grade. But later that year Leila’s mother passed away and, each of us down a parent—mine to a car accident, hers to cancer—we bonded over the loss. My mother had liked Leila at first, preferring that I make friends with other immigrants, but after Leila’s mother died and she started acting out, my mother tried to steer me away, although she remained courteous to her.

“There’s nothing wrong with Leila. There’s nothing wrong with me. There’s nothing wrong with anything. We’re fine, Mom.” My mother threw up her hands and the argument ended as many had before, with her exasperated capitulation.

Or so I thought.

Now, two weeks later, my mother drove to the airport in a silence so heavy it slid across my skin. She’d threatened to send me to my aunt so many times it had become toothless, but the valedictorian thing must have been the last straw. At the airport, she mellowed enough to give careful warnings—don’t take anything from strangers, stay at your gate so you don’t miss the plane—but I responded in monosyllables, too angry to manage much else.

“Chinyere will be picking you up from the airport. Please be good. I love you.”

***

I could tell right away that I wasn’t what she’d expected, this wild American cousin of hers. I was wearing loose jeans, a tank top, and a flannel shirt, which had served in the coolness of the aircraft but I now tied around my waist to circumvent the naija heat. I looked, as always, disappointing. My mother constantly complained about my dressing, the baggy jeans and shirts too masculine for her liking, but I had always dressed for comfort, not much caring how I looked.

Chinyere dressed for style and was much thinner than I’d expected, but without the bony edges that had earned me the nickname “Daddy Longlegs” in my adolescence.

“Chinyere.”

“Ada, welcome.”

My mother loved invoking Chinyere to nudge me into correct behavior. Chinyere was such a sweet girl; Chinyere went to church, so why couldn’t I; Chinyere was so obedient. Even after her indiscretion, the lectures continued. Chinyere was so nice, you see, and called my mother every other Sunday afternoon between three and four, just to chat. There was no chance of us being friends.

In her car, a sporty but dusty two-door Toyota, my phone beeped as it connected to a network. Chinyere held out her hand.

“May I borrow it? Just to make a quick call.”

“I don’t know, my mom said it would be expensive and I should buy a phone here and only use this one for emergencies.”

Chinyere didn’t push, but the air between us turned hostile. After a few moments of sitting in traffic, I shrugged and capitulated.

“Here, just make sure it’s fast,” I said, extending it to her, but she didn’t even look at me.

We were somewhere on the mainland bridge when she held out her hand again, and this time I gave it to her. She spoke excitedly to the female voice that answered, telling her to call my number if she wanted to speak to her and adding that since her cousin was here, her mother would have to let her go out sometime, so they could meet up then. After ending the call, Chinyere explained that her mother didn’t allow her to have a mobile anymore and she wasn’t allowed to go anywhere or do anything.

“I see.” This didn’t bode well for us having a good time.

At the house, Auntie Ugo rushed out, looking like a wider, taller version of my mother, and hugged me.

“Look at you so grown up. And so tall. You must have gotten that from your father.” She said her husband was in Abuja and wouldn’t be back till next week, but he was very excited to see me. Then she updated me on people I’d long forgotten, chattering about who was doing what and how proud my mother had been when I got into Emory and how I must be so excited. Not once did she look at Chinyere, who rolled my suitcase behind us.

After a few more minutes catching up, Auntie Ugo went to finish making dinner, pointing me to the guest room upstairs. Along the staircase were pictures of Chinyere as a child, alone, with her parents, with me on the last visit I’d made when I was thirteen. The pictures stopped a couple of years after that, and there were no images of the baby.

In my room, I found Chinyere rifling through my suitcase, pulling out tops and dresses and holding them to her.

“They’re all new. Did you go shopping just for this visit?”

I looked at the suitcase. Not a scrap of flannel or denim in sight. No doubt my shirts and jeans were being sorted at a thrift shop right that minute, or possibly aflame in our backyard fire pit.

“Ugh, my mom must have. I don’t dress like this.” I traced the beaded edge of a black jersey top that managed to accommodate folds and layers and creases. It was so lovely I resented it. “You can have it if you want.”

“I have my own clothes.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

Auntie Ugo called us.

In the kitchen, she manned several pots while giving instructions to the housekeeper, Madeline, on what to buy, mentioning foods she remembered as my favorites even after all these years. Madeline bounced the baby on her hip and he pulled at her buttons.

“Chi-Chi, why don’t you take care of your brother,” Auntie Ugo said, and the cadence of the request carried the rhythm of one uttered many times. The boy was a year old, bug-eyed and cute. My mother had warned me I was to go along with the pretense in public, but I hadn’t expected that even in the privacy of their home we were to act as if the boy wasn’t Chinyere’s son. Madeline handed him to Chinyere and they both left the room, leaving me alone with my aunt. I didn’t know how to fill the silence after her casual malice. She was more than up to it.

“You know, we did everything for that girl, everything. The best schools, the best everything.” She tasted the soup and added Maggi, shaking the bottle so vigorously I resigned myself to dinner being a little salty. “But you children, you don’t know anything.”

She sounded just like my mother, and I knew that if I didn’t interrupt, the lecture would escalate until I wanted to slit my wrists just to give her something to mop so she would. Stop. Talking.

“I’m tired,” I said.

“Oh, sorry, my dear, go and lie down. Chinyere will get you when the food is ready.”

Instead of escaping to the guest room, I went to Chinyere’s, where I found her lying on her bed while the boy toddled around waving a comb in the air. She looked up when I walked in, then went back to tempting him with an unlit candle. When he released the comb, she snatched it up and slipped it under her pillow. He grabbed the candle and jabbed the air with it before offering it to me, grinning.

“Don’t take it, or he will come looking for the comb again,” she said.

The boy grew bored waiting for me to accept his gift and leaned over to tug at the neon-yellow straps of my flip-flops.

“He likes you.” She didn’t sound like she liked that. Or me.

“What can I say, I have a way with handsome young men. And aren’t you handsome? Aren’t you deliciously handsome?” The boy squealed and giggled as I picked him up and pretended to snack on his arms and belly. When I stopped, he settled his head into my neck.

“He must be tired,” Chinyere said. “Let me take him.”

She got up, pulled him out of my arms, and settled him in the hollow of the mattress she’d just vacated. A week ago you couldn’t have told me I would enjoy the weight of a child or feel intense satisfaction when he gripped my shirt as his mother removed him. I’d always thought of babies as blobby entities, sometimes powder scented, sometimes poo scented, that I wouldn’t need to concern myself with for another decade. But Chinyere had given birth when she was around the age I was now.

“My mom’s mad at me too, you know,” I said, looking for common ground.

“Her mom”—she imitated my pronunciation, poorly—“gets angry with her and buys her clothes.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Oh? What’s it like?”

I didn’t feel like explaining—where would I even begin—so I went to my room. I dug through the suitcase looking for anything that was mine, but even the pajamas were new. I picked up the beaded black shirt and put it on. It was as lovely as I’d imagined it would be. I rummaged through my purse and found my phone.

My cousin is a bitch, I typed, then sent to Leila. A few minutes later she responded.

Yeah, I heard your mom sent you back to Africa. Text me some topless women!

I laughed. Derek Colvin and the guys on the soccer team had taken to calling Leila the Lebanese Lesbian because she refused to date any of them. And being Leila, she sort of ran with it.

This is a $10 text telling you you’re an idiot. I don’t want to stay here. I’m going to try and guilt my mom into getting me a hotel.

And as though following perfectly timed stage directions, my phone woofed. It was the ringtone I’d programmed for my mother when I was angry with her—a dog barking.

“Hey, Mom.”

“Your auntie said you arrived almost an hour ago. You should have called me, or at least texted so I could call you.”

“I’m sorry, I just got to catching up with Chinyere and lost track of time.”

“That’s nice. Maybe she will be a good influence on you.”

“Uh, doubt it, what with the baby by her married boyfriend.”

My mother paused.

“Single women with children aren’t bad people.”

I sat up, chastened.

“I’m sorry.” Requesting a hotel was out of the question now.

“Did you like my surprise?”

“I’m wearing one of your surprises right now. I look like a whore.”

“Chineke, Ada, don’t make me choke on my food.” She was laughing. “It’s just that you are so used to walking around dressed like a boy. You will soon like it.”

I hadn’t realized how angry I’d been with her until suddenly I wasn’t. I wanted to tell her about Auntie Ugo and Chinyere, how it seemed they would come to blows any minute, and how even at our most contentious we had never been like that.

“Thank you.”

“Aha, I was waiting for that. I also put a package in there for your auntie Ugo and your uncle. There’s some perfume for Chinyere and a little something for the housekeeper. I’m sure your auntie will find you girls something nice to do.”

The event my aunt secured us an invitation to was a fund-raiser for a private primary school whose student body consisted mostly of the spawn of the local elite. It was hardly the carousing I had been promised, but it was a way out of the house that met Auntie Ugo's requirement that no one get pregnant. We could only go if we took a phone—mine—and promised to answer it by the second ring. Or else. The invitation promised entertainment and refreshment, and that seemed to be enough for Chinyere. She dressed in a shortish black dress and applied makeup so expertly she looked like a different, glamorous person. I picked a blue dress from the collection my mother had packed and had to admit that when it came to clothing, my mother knew what she was doing. After watching me struggle with a tube of caked mascara, Chinyere went and retrieved an arsenal of tubes and brushes, sat me at the foot of the bed, and went to work. She said nothing except to direct me—close your eyes, smack your lips—and was done not ten minutes after she began. The mirror showed that nice young woman my mother was always hoping for. I looked like a promise fulfilled.

“Can you take a picture for me?” It was all the compliment Chinyere needed on her handiwork, and she smirked as she snapped a picture with my phone. I let her hold on to it, because I didn’t like to carry a purse, and I figured she’d want to make another clandestine call once we’d left the house. But she wasn’t done with favors.

“You have to do something for me. Ask my mum if we can borrow her car.” She rushed over my response. “I used to borrow it all the time, before. I can drive it, I just need you to ask or else she’ll say no.”

The request seemed harmless enough.

“Okay. But that makes us even.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

In the kitchen, Auntie Ugo looked at Chinyere when I asked for the car and continued looking at her as I bullshitted about why it was so crucial—we were dressed so nice, our car should be as nice.

“You are starting again, Chi-Chi? Making people lie for you?” Before Chinyere could respond, Auntie Ugo threw the keys at her. “Oya, take it. But let this be the last time.”

Chinyere walked away, leaving me to thank my aunt and rush out before she could utter any last-minute mood-killing pronouncements. In the car, Chinyere leaned her head against the steering wheel of her mother’s Mercedes, her knuckles tense where they clutched it. I thought of what it would feel like to have my mother despise me, to have utter disappointment at the center of our relationship. I laid an awkward hand on Chinyere’s shoulder and she let me. Then she shook it off. “Let’s go.” She was smiling now, excited at her release, and I couldn’t help catching her mood.

The fund-raiser took place at a convention center on the island. As we walked in, photographers snapped pictures, directing us to turn this way and that, but Chinyere grabbed my hand before I could stop and shook her head, pulling me to the lobby.

“No one important stops to get their picture taken.”

“And we’re important?”

“No, but the point is to pretend.”

There were a few young women our age, all dressed alike—ushers working the event. The older woman examining invitations rolled her eyes at us, double-checking our invite. We didn’t look like we’d be writing any checks.

Our table seated eight people; our chairs were the only empty ones. The woman to our left was dressed in a red that was an unfortunate match to the table-cloth. She smiled at us in that benign nostalgic way older people reserve for the very young. A waiter stopped by our table.

“Red or white?”

Chinyere winked at me and studied the label with a practiced eye.

“Red please, and leave the bottle.”

Two glasses in, we were the best of friends. We dug through our complimentary souvenir bags, finding a small clock emblazoned with the school’s logo and pamphlets featuring endearing little faces captioned with their plans for the future. Chinyere giggled and pointed out a man two tables over who kept staring at me. Every time I happened to glance at him, his smile grew warmer. At the table next to him a group of older women gathered like birds, dressed in bright shades of traditionals. One stared at Chinyere, but when I told her, she quieted and refused to look in the woman’s direction again. When one of our table companions got up a few minutes later, the woman slid into his seat before it could cool.

“Why, Chi-Chi, my dear, I almost couldn’t believe it was you. How is your... brother?”

Chinyere stiffened. “My brother is fine, he’s with my mother.”

“And how is she? I’m surprised she didn’t come tonight, she really loves these little events, doesn’t she?”

When Chinyere didn’t respond, she tried a different tack.

“Why don’t you stand up and let me see that dress, Chi-Chi, my dear?”

Chinyere hesitated, caught between deference and embarrassment. She stood up and moved to sit right down, but the woman gestured. “Turn around, I want to see the back.”

Chinyere hesitated again. This was her mother’s battle, not hers, but in the way of these things, she had become collateral damage.

“Why don’t you turn around?” I said to the woman. “I’d love to describe your outfit to my mother. I didn’t know that fabric was still in fashion.” The woman looked at me, mouth twitching—amusement or anger, I wasn’t sure—then looked back at Chinyere, who had used the distraction to sit down.

The two and a half glasses of wine I’d had swirled in my gut, ready to conjure more impertinence.

“Because I could have sworn I saw a picture of my grandmother wearing that exact outfit. In the sixties.”

Someone at the table snorted, but the woman didn’t look away from me.

“I am Grace Ogige,” the woman said as though I should have known the name. “Who are you?”

“I’m her cousin.”

Grace Ogige did some society math in her head—1 social climber + x = whose mouthy child is this—then smiled.

“Ah, the sister in America. I knew your father, you know. He was a very good friend of mine.” A hiccup in her voice suggested more. “He was a godly man from a good family.”

I nodded, unsure how to respond. My mother rarely spoke of my father, other than to lecture me about not disappointing him. The woman stared at me for a moment, then scraped a trembling hand under her neckline, her confidence beginning to fray.

“It’s too bad he got all mixed up with the wrong type of people. He could have been alive today.”

“He died in a car accident. There were no ‘wrong type of people.’”

Raised brows around the table echoed what the sane little voice in my head, the one floundering in drink, was trying to tell me: shut up.

“Of course not. It’s just funny how he died so quickly, leaving his family’s holdings to his wife’s relatives. Things just aren’t done like that here. I’m sure your mother finds America more comfortable.”

She delivered the lines like she’d been waiting for this moment, like she’d rehearsed what she’d say to my mother if they met again. That I was not her made no difference. This was the closest she would get to drawing my mother’s blood.

The whole table was silent now, and I regretted taking the heat off Chinyere. Even though my mother had inherited the few properties outside the country, my father’s brothers had challenged her right to his businesses in Nigeria, and they had battled it out in the courts for five years, till I was seven. Chinyere’s father managed what little my mother had been able to win—the bottle factory, various tracts of land—and wielded some small influence. My father’s brothers had retained the majority of his Nigerian holdings, despite the will. The wine began to sour in my belly.

“Well. You two girls enjoy the food. I loaned my chef for the evening, so I know it will be excellent.”

I took another foolish sip of wine.

“Yes, well, you’ve clearly enjoyed your chef.”

If possible, the table got quieter.

The woman stared at me for a long minute.

“And what is her son’s name?” She nodded at Chinyere.

I was quick to answer, caution dulled by the wine and eager to clap back to the insult I expected to hear.

“Jonathan.”

The woman gave us a wide, knowing smile, suspicions confirmed. Her hands still trembled—victory now, or excitement—as she rose and returned to her flock. The other women leaned into her, then stole glances at us, some dabbing their smiles with napkins, others openly snickering.

Chinyere’s hand dug so deep into my thigh I was sure she drew blood. Nobody at the table would look at us. I hadn’t cried since the time Leila stopped speaking to me for a month after I said I found her annual memorial for her mom a little much. The time before that, I was seven, on the plane that took us away from Nigeria. Half my tears had been imitations of my mother’s, and the rest were for friends left behind, soon forgotten. I felt like crying now. Chinyere scraped her chair back, grabbed her purse, and left. I sat, lost. I glanced at the woman who had ruined more than just the evening and she seemed to have moved on, laughing and coyly patting the belly of the man who stood over her, no doubt jesting about the food. Someone touched my hand. The woman in red. She spoke in a low, concerned tone.

“You should probably go after her.”

I grabbed the gift bags Chinyere had forgotten.

“Here, take mine too,” she said, as though a third clock could turn back the minutes and undo catastrophe.

I thanked her and left, feeling eyes on me but not daring to look around.

In the elevator, my limbs began to shake. I crossed my arms and the trembling moved to my lips. I’d always thought myself so savvy and grown, smoking in Leila’s basement, kissing boys in hidden corners, maneuvering my mother with my smart mouth. I’d never felt as much of a child as I did just now.

The elevator opened. A small crowd had gathered in the lobby. Chinyere wasn’t among them. As I walked outside, a few photographers mobbed me, waving blurry photos of Chinyere and me that we hadn’t posed for. I went over to where we had parked and made two turns around the small lot before realizing that no, I hadn’t gotten the spot wrong; the car was gone. Chinyere had left me.

Panic billowed in my belly as I walked back to the event center. Inside, I stopped a young woman in usher red and asked if she had a phone I could borrow. At her cagey expression, I explained my predicament (stranded) without going into the why of it (I’m a walking disaster), and between my American accent and my panic, she must have believed me. She looked to the right and left, then pulled a small phone from her bodice. It wasn’t until I had it in my hand that I realized I didn’t have any Nigerian numbers memorized. Shit. I dialed my number, hoping Chinyere would answer, but it rang and rang until I was listening to my voice mail asking me to leave a message. I took a deep breath and texted.

Chinyere, it’s Ada, please call this number right away, please, I’m so sorry.

I hit send, then remembered what Chinyere would see if she checked more of the messages—My cousin is a bitch and worse—and began to cry.

The usher had returned to her duties but stayed close enough that she could keep an eye on me. I turned away, embarrassed at my sniffling, and leaned on a decorative pillar, my back to the lobby. Then I dialed Leila, who always knew what to do.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me, I’m such an idiot; I really fucked up.”

“What did you do now?”

I was only a quarter of the way through the condensed version when the phone beeped, then cut off, all the credit used up. The usher, who had been waiting to catch my eye, approached me, smiling softly.

“Did you reach your cousin?”

“Yes,” I said, resisting the urge to drag her into the orbit of drama that revolved around me. I handed her the phone, relieved when she slipped it into the front of her dress without seeing the out-of-credit text that had no doubt come through.

I must have looked as awkward as I felt, unmoored, the pillar my only companion, because I kept drawing stares. After a third man nodded and lifted his glass to me, I realized they thought I was a high-class runs girl scoping out her market. I began to see most of the gawking for what it was. This is a children’s fund-raiser, their looks said, couldn’t this ashewo find somewhere else to lift her skirt?

I went back outside and stood at the lip of the entrance, just off to the right. Chinyere would come back for me, she wouldn’t risk being buried under the avalanche of shit that would shake loose for stranding her visiting cousin in the middle of the night with no way to get home.

The air was muggy and soon a fine dampness settled on my skin. I was partially hidden by a large potted palm, but the electric blue of my dress drew every exiting eye in my direction. Most gave me quick glances before turning to more pressing matters, like studiously ignoring the pushy photographers. But some lingered and a kindly woman even asked if everything was all right, to which I responded yes, my cousin is coming to get me.

Idleness did what it always did, and I found myself unable to ignore the disquieting information the night had brought me. I’d always believed that any secrets between my mother and me were mostly mine, indiscretions I might confess long after they lost the power to draw her ire. She had always avoided talk of what happened after my father’s death and faked cheeriness during what must have been a tumultuous legal battle. What else didn’t I know?

The hour grew late and the mad rush of departing guests began to peter out. Even an usher or two had left. I was about to make my way to the parking lot again—maybe Chinyere had returned—when someone tapped my shoulder. It was Chi-Chi’s antagonist. She held up one finger to hold off words while she completed a message on her BlackBerry, then looked up.

“You have been standing here all night. Where is Chi-Chi? Don’t tell me that girl left you.”

I didn’t want to hand this woman any more ammunition, but I was also tired, and the long night of rude stares had eaten up a lot of my guilt.

“My driver is coming around, I will take you to your auntie’s house.”

I didn’t dare turn down the offer at this late hour. Besides, it would serve Chinyere right to return and not find me. I followed the woman to the edge of the red carpet, where a gleaming black Range Rover pulled up. A young man stepped out and opened the back door. The woman settled in, then pulled out a bottle of water and sucked at it, the plastic crackling.

She gave the driver directions, which I tried to memorize just in case. Then she watched me till I started to fidget. The wine must not have passed out of my system because I couldn’t help myself.

“What?” I said rudely. My mother would have slapped my mouth.

“You look just like him. I didn’t see it before, but you do,” she said, opening a small tin of Vaseline and moistening her lips. “We were supposed to be married, you know.”

My father, a man I had never really thought about, at least not in this way. A man with a past.

“You could easily have been my child. I don’t have any girls.”

She looked me up and down, lingering at my shoes.

“Your dress is nice.”

“My mother picked it.”

I hoped the response would hurt her. Instead she laughed.

“You are very clever. You get that from him, too.”

She began to ask me questions typical of adults when they’re trying to be polite. How is school? Are you enjoying your trip? How long are you here for? She followed up with talk of her sons—one my age, two younger. She didn’t mention Chinyere. I relaxed, surprised to find myself liking her, this woman who had been my enemy short minutes ago.

It was not long before we pulled up to my aunt’s gate. As we waited for the maiguard, she took my chin in her hand and studied my face.

“You are everything I would have expected his child to be.”

I wavered between being flattered and being aware that this styled, polished girl was not really me.

“Thank you.”

Then the maiguard opened the gate, and we drove through.

Auntie Ugo was on the front steps, dressed in a wrapper and head scarf. No doubt she thought it must be Chinyere and me returning for the night.

I expected their encounter to be hostile and it was, but in a different way than I anticipated. My aunt was deferential, calling the woman “ma,” while the woman called her Ugo and answered her chattiness with as few words as possible. It was clear she just wanted to leave.

She soon did and Auntie Ugo changed back to her irritated self the moment the gates closed.

“Where is Chinyere?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does this girl have your phone?”

I nodded.

I expected her to start shouting but she remained calm, putting her cell phone to her ear as she walked into the house.

“Chinyere, my dear, how are you? Are you enjoying yourself?” Her sugary tone should have set off Chinyere’s warning bells but I could hear my cousin chattering on the other end.

“And Cousin Ada, is she well?”

More chattering.

“Let me talk to her.”

I opened my mouth to say something but my aunt held up her finger and gave me a look of such fury that I shut up.

“Oh, she’s in the bathroom? Well, she won’t be long I’m sure, I can wait on the line.”

More chattering as Chinyere dug a hole deep enough to be buried in.

“She’s talking with someone else now? That’s a funny something, because Grace Ogige just dropped her off at the house.”

The chattering stopped. I imagine Chinyere’s heart stopped, too. Auntie put her fury into words now. The intensity of her shouting drove me from the room and traveled up the stairs with me, past the old photos of Chinyere. I stopped in front of the one of us together, arms slung around each other’s waists. At thirteen, I’d been taller than her at fifteen, and I remembered her mother teasing her about it.

Through the door to my cousin’s room I could see the boy rubbing the sleep from his eyes. I sat on the bed and pulled him into my lap, cradling his head under my chin. He fiddled with the neckline of my dress, then settled. I stroked his head, trying to will the night away. A glance at the clock showed it was past midnight. I wouldn’t have blamed Chinyere if she stayed away till morning.

Almost two hours later, I heard the gate creak open and shifted the boy off me and went to the window. Chinyere came through the gate at a modest, almost penitent pace, as though she’d already begun to beg forgiveness. Auntie Ugo ran up to the car and pulled on the driver’s-side door, but Chinyere had locked it, so she started banging on the window, shouting the whole time. I couldn’t make out all of the words, but she punctuated each one with a slap to the glass, an unsatisfying substitute for Chinyere’s face. My cousin sat in the driver’s seat, staring straight ahead. This continued for a good ten minutes. Suddenly Auntie Ugo settled for pointing her finger at the house. I pulled back from the window for a moment in case they looked up and saw me, not that it mattered. Everyone in the neighborhood must have been awake and listening.

Then my aunt resumed her tirade, and I returned to watch. “Don’t let me break this window, Chi-Chi. If I break this window, next thing I will break you, do you hear me?”

Chinyere must have believed the threat, because she finally shut off the engine and opened the door. As soon as she did, Auntie Ugo was on her. She held my cousin by a twist at the shoulder of her dress while her free hand went to work. Chinyere absorbed it all, not one finger raised in defense. I pulled away from the window once more. This wasn’t a memory I wanted.

The boy was awake again. When he caught me looking at him, he held up his arms, a whine blooming in his throat. The front door slammed and we both jumped. I soothed him before whimper turned to full cry. That’s how Chinyere found me, sitting on her bed, her son nestled in my lap.

We were both still in our party clothes, but her dress was torn at the collar. Her makeup was streaked and her tears had irrigated most of it to her neck. She looked like she’d been crying since she left the fund-raiser. I couldn’t tell how much of her face’s puffiness was due to the tears and how much to her mother’s open palm.

The boy had begun to bounce when he saw her, twisting to get off my lap. I tried to hold on to him, as Chinyere appeared in no shape to deal with a child.

“Leave him,” she said, and the boy waddled over to her. He seemed content to just grip her leg.

“I’m sorry,” I said, inadequate as the words felt.

She neither accepted nor rejected the apology but moved to sit by me, pulling the boy onto her lap. He tried to mush our heads together. Chinyere settled for leaning her head on my shoulder, stiff at first, then relaxing into it. I curled my arm around her. When I felt her tears on my neck, I tightened my grip. The boy touched her face and babbled comfort, the last happy sound we would hear for a while.

From WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A MAN FALLS FROM THE SKY by Lesley Nneka Arimah. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Lesley Nneka Arimah.