McSweeney’s Issue 59 brings with it the conclusions to three thrilling cliffhanger stories, the first halves of which were published in Issue 57. In case you missed that now out-of-print issue, here’s the first half of one of these stories by Oyinkan Braithwaite. After you read it, grab a copy of Issue 59 to read its breathtaking conclusions.
Perhaps it is normal to lose yourself to a marriage; maybe it is even essential. Maybe it is the only way to survive it.
Mrs. Ajanlekoko thinks this, pleased with herself, because it’s a deep philosophical thought and her husband would never expect it of her. Ade’s body is tense, but she resists the urge to massage the kinks out of his shoulders; he would not appreciate it. He stabs the air with his finger, and spittle flies from his mouth. Her brother is leaning away from Ade, sinking into the purple-and-gold sofa that she still dreams of replacing, his eyes looking everywhere but at the threatening finger. His soft voice is drowned out by Ade’s quickly increasing volume:
“If you vote for Buhari again, you are a fool.”
All her husband’s statements are like this. His arguments are never wishy-washy, nor do they brook disagreement. Everything is black-and-white. No room for in-betweens. 1 + 1 = 2. Buhari = fool.
Her brother mumbles something about Atiku stealing money. She wonders why they do not mention anything about the seventy-something other candidates bidding for the presidential office. Surely some of them deserve consideration. But she keeps her thoughts to herself. The last time she voiced an opinion on the coming election, Ade responded with:
“Please, don’t embarrass me.”
He hasn’t even asked her if she is going to vote. She stands up and heads to the guest toilet. She comes here a couple of times a day, to rinse her face and stare at herself in the mirror. She hopes to catch the slow but sure aging of her body. The moment a gray hair shoots through, she’ll be there to pluck it. The second a wrinkle appears, she’ll be there to smooth it out. She is a long way from either of these occurring, of course, but that doesn’t stop her from worrying about them.
Today her skin is smooth, taut, her cheekbones high, her eyes bright, made even brighter by her long, dark lashes and carefully applied makeup. She is well aware that her face is the currency she used to draw him in and she must be vigilant about maintaining the standard she set.
When she returns to their living room, her brother is making his excuses. He doesn’t like to be in her husband’s presence for too long. She gives her brother a brisk kiss on the cheek, but she does not see him out.
Mrs. Ajanlekoko sees it from the corner of her eye—a dirty brown against the near-sparkling marble surface. The cockroach scuttles across her kitchen floor and she jumps, even though she is on one side of the room and it is on the other. She shifts her weight from heel to toe and readies herself to smash it with a broom, only to notice that the cockroach is now hovering an inch above the ground. It has sprouted wings.
A squeal escapes her, and the cockroach, as though drawn by the sound, flies toward her.
The jazz playing in the study, two doors from where she runs for her life, is Le Grand Kallé. The volume increases as though in reaction to her growing tension and fear, but it is merely her husband drowning out the disturbance. Once upon a time her screams would have sent his heart racing and his feet running to her aid, but he has since decided that she needs very little provocation to cry out.
Also, he has his work to attend to.
She stumbles through the kitchen door and slams it shut, sucking in air and trying to catch her breath. The cockroach isn’t dead. In fact, she believes she can still hear it whirring and bumping into the fridge, the cooker, the washing machine.
The estate to which their house belongs is still mostly undeveloped. Whenever she sees the construction trucks roll their way, she prays that they are transporting the cement and bricks to one of the several forest-like plots on their street, but as though there is some unseen barrier, number 1A continues to be the only house on Leye Drive. The plots to the left, right, and across from their house are barren, wild like mini jungles; their neighbors are snakes, dwarf crocodiles, and cockroaches the size of your fist.
It is an awkward situation she finds herself in. The smart thing would be to create a fog of insecticide in the kitchen and leave the cockroach to breathe in the poison. The problem is, the insecticide is in the storeroom, a six-by-eight-foot room you can access only through the kitchen. She leans against the door and uses her sleeve to wipe away the drops of sweat threatening to fall from her forehead into her eyes.
The garden door is to her right—a glass sliding door with a stiff lock that leads outside. She could open it and walk around the back of the house in order to access the second kitchen door. That door is closer to the storeroom than the door she is currently leaning against. She might be able to grab the insecticide without bumping into the cockroach.
Only, when she tries it, the garden door won’t open. It resists as she presses her palms against it and attempts to slide it across. After several tries, she gives up. She has called this place home for several years now, but has never been able to open the garden door. Ade keeps assuring her he will call someone to fix it. And so she waits. Until then, they will continue to use the kitchen door to get to the garden.
Music floats to her from the study, reminding her that she isn’t alone.
She ducks under the archway between the dining and living rooms, an architectural design that proves people must have been shorter back in the day, and makes her way from living room to corridor. The music is louder here; it’s as though he is trying to block out even the threat of another sound. But it is past 10 p.m., and they inhabit the only house on Leye Drive; there is very little competition as far as sound goes. Unless, of course, you count the frogs, whose mating songs tend toward the loud and obnoxious.
She doesn’t bother to knock; he wouldn’t hear her anyway. She turns the knob and walks brazenly into the room.
The bulb that swings above his head gives off a faint orange light, just managing to illuminate the desk where he works. His broad back shields most of his desk from her, and his head hangs low. His glasses are probably somewhere on the desk; he chooses instead to squint at his words. The bookshelf, the couch, the paintings, and everything else around him are like shadows, faded and forgotten. She reminds herself that she needs to replace the bulb, perhaps on one of the few days when he leaves the house.
His senses should have alerted him to her presence, to her eyes on his back; a faint feeling that he isn’t alone, a shifting in the air, perhaps. But he doesn’t acknowledge her.
He doesn’t respond to her soft, nudging voice. She glances at the iPhone on its stand, playing the music that seems to envelop everything in its vicinity. She looks away and twists her fingers.
Ade’s shoulders stiffen, and she knows he has heard her, but he does not turn around.
It sounds like he’s spitting, as if he has screwed his lips together and thrown out a word and the fact that he has spoken is distasteful to him.
“I don’t mean to disturb you; it’s just…”
It is on the tip of her tongue to tell him about the cockroach in the kitchen, to ask him for assistance, but all of a sudden she feels uncertain.
“How is it going?”
She says this so she doesn’t have to say she is sorry. She hasn’t done anything wrong, has she? Perhaps she should have knocked. She draws closer to the desk, to him.
There are several sheets of paper scattered on the desk—most resemble the redacted documents in an FBI file. He has crossed out, written over, and crossed out again. The sheets have aged. Some curl in on themselves.
She asked him once why he didn’t just type his work—
“I need to find the rhythm with my hand.”
“With your hand?”
“I don’t get it.”
“I’m not surprised.”
She cranes her neck so as to make out the words on the page, but he quickly covers it with his hand, scrunching one of the sheets in the process. She leans back and sighs.
“Are you hungry? There’s jollof in the…”
She stops when she recalls the cockroach, which is probably still spinning and twirling in the air, Peter Pan–style.
“I’m not. Hungry.”
He turns away from her as much as he can in a chair that doesn’t swivel. In fact, it is fair to say, based on the chair’s heavy wooden design, that the carpenter did not desire it to move or be moved. It is planted in the study, much like her husband is.
He grabs a piece of paper, screws it into a ball, and tosses it over his shoulder. It hits her before falling to the ground. She picks it up and walks to the wastepaper basket, where there is a cluster of paper balls that have and have not managed to make it into the bin. She opens her palm to allow the ball to roll into the bin, but when it begins to slip away from her, she closes her palm. Her heart trembles in her chest as she slips the paper into her pocket. She walks out quickly, and outside the door she lets out her breath. She avoids the mirror in the hallway.
Mrs. Ajanlekoko comes out of the bathroom dripping. She has washed her hair, so it, too, is dripping. It falls down past her shoulders, where normally it is cloudlike, floating, barely grazing her neck, but weighed down by the weight of the water, it becomes long. She pats it dry, but resists the urge to plug in her hair dryer. Her flaming-red towel encircles her body, but, although she tucks it under her armpits, it still manages to unravel. She catches the falling corner, but not before it has exposed her left breast and a portion of her thigh. She looks up to see if Ade has witnessed her nakedness, but his eyes are glued to the book he reads—the same book every time. It is as though he’s studying it. As though he means to lift the words from the pages and imprint them onto his soul. He has never given her own writing more than a cursory glance.
Once, she had boldly requested the book.
“You read the book all the time. You must love it. I’d like to know what it’s about.”
“You won’t appreciate it.”
He handed it to her without another word. It took her a month to read it, she who usually needed only a day or two. The book made no sense to her. It was like walking through a labyrinth that had no exit. She was emptied when she turned the last page. There must have been something she had missed, but all she saw was the sex, and the rage and the death. It had won some obscure award. When she returned the book to him, he didn’t ask her how she had found it. The next morning, he was reading it again.
He is planted on the bed, his back resting against the headboard, his feet jutting out from below the duvet. She sidles over to him, re-looping the towel, but not too tightly.
He looks at her, and she wonders what he sees. She knows he once thought her beautiful—he would praise her sloping eyes, her lips, which he said reminded him of kpomo, her long neck. But there is no more affirmation and there is nothing in his gaze the rare times he even looks her way. She sits on the bed and rests her hand on his thigh. It has been too long. Two months already.
“I just… I thought we could… maybe…”
Is it supposed to be this hard? She had grown up with the understanding that men were like beasts in the wild, that they could never be satiated. And if they weren’t getting it from you, then they were getting it elsewhere. But Ade rarely leaves his study, so unless he was getting his action from their aging cook—she of the gnarled hands and curved back—then he should have been hungry, hungrier than she was.
A lone drop of water travels from her shoulder blade to her breast; he does not follow it. She had been created to fit into the curve of a man’s palm, this man’s palm. She leans forward, hoping he will save her the embarrassment of having to put her needs into words.
“If you are not going to say anything, I’d like to go back to reading.”
“It’s just… I want to… It’s been some time since…”
“Since… we’ve done it…”
Her voice is getting smaller and smaller. She should have left him to his book, but she needs this. She holds in her breath and unravels the rest of her towel.
Did he sigh? She isn’t sure.
He gets up from the bed and walks out of the room, book in hand.
He is not home. There is no one to catch her betraying his trust. But she should be focusing on her own writing. Her deadline is just around the corner and her readers are waiting for another light, fanciful tale. Still, here is a rare opportunity to experience her husband’s work. She spreads the rolled-up paper on her table—a small faux-wooden construct in the corner of the kitchen—smoothing it with her palm. It is hard to tell what is written on it. He uses a fountain pen; some lines are half-smudged. And his words are slanted, joined letter to letter, exactly as they were taught in school.
War is the soldier who cuts short the life of the man just like him, just like him—two eyes, one nose, one mouth, one bloody bleeding heart—except he is on the other side of an arbitrarily drawn line, it is the woman screaming as her body is invaded by strangers, the displaced boy dying from hunger in the street, the elderly with nothing left to do but die, having had all their descendants die before them. This is war. We are at war. Don’t you see? You name them, so we can tell when one ends and when one begins. But the truth is, we are constantly at war. A woman’s body is a battleground.
Mrs. Ajanlekoko’s hands tremble. Is this what her husband has spent hours bent over? Not eating, not sleeping, not giving her what is by rights hers? Why would he… She needs to be sure. She rolls the paper back into a ball and stuffs it into her jeans pocket.
She shuts the study door behind her. First, she will change his light. If he finds anything untoward later, she can blame it on her labors. She climbs onto his chair, and from his chair moves her weight onto his table. His desk is a heavy mahogany work of art, and she suffers a moment of guilt as she steps onto it, but she doesn’t want to go out and ask the gateman for a stepladder, in case he asks her what her intentions are. The bulb is already off, and barely any natural light gets in here; there is one bathroom-sized window in the room and that’s it. She has been forced to use the torchlight on her phone to navigate, and now it rests on the table, shining on her attempt to unscrew the bulb that forces her husband to squint, causing further harm to his eyes.
She bends to lower the glass bulb onto the table and picks up the new one to screw it in.
She switches on the light and nothing happens. For a moment she assumes she has bought a faulty bulb, but then she opens the door and looks out. The whole house is in darkness. The electricity has gone out, and it is too early to put on the generator. She returns to his desk and sits in his chair to gather her thoughts. She had intended to work on her laptop once she was done replacing his bulb, but there is no electricity to charge it now. She isn’t like Ade; she can’t write her stories with a pen and paper. She likes having the freedom to delete, and then undo. She likes being able to select sentences and move them around. She appreciates the little squiggly lines that color the page when she has spelled something incorrectly. She is convinced the laptop makes her a better writer. Without it, she would be exposed to her readers as a fraud.
Ade has referred to her work as writing-by-numbers, and perhaps that isn’t far from the truth. Her work isn’t deep. It doesn’t push boundaries. She likes for her heroines to live happily ever after. Her eyes rest on the scattered sheets of paper on his desk. The words jump out at her, and she pins one with her finger, sliding it toward her.
It isn’t that she doesn’t respect his privacy, it is just… he has been writing this masterpiece since before they met… and she has never read it. She doesn’t expect him to write the way she does. Of course not; classics take years and years. But she is his wife and she wants to know what to expect. He never talks about it, but it takes up more than half his day, every day. She lights up the sheet with her phone’s torchlight.
It doesn’t take long before she confirms that her husband is for the most part re-creating the book that he has read over and over again. He doesn’t even camouflage his theft. He has copied whole paragraphs. The original tale is about a man who buries himself in a woman’s body, who finds himself and then loses her. Ade’s story is about a woman who rediscovers herself through love and then loses that love.
And why this book? What is it about this author’s prose that makes a well-educated man want to copy it word for word? Mrs. Ajanlekoko has the niggling suspicion that she has missed something, just like she did when she read the original.
The book is lying on the table, on top of some of his handwritten notes, and so she picks it up again. It is a thick book, almost six hundred pages. The cover is dark, with an image of legs splayed across it. By Feranmi A. Abiodun. The name nudges her. She copies the name into her phone.
She slips out as quietly as she came in.
She finds Feranmi on Google, on Instagram, on Twitter. All she learns about her on Google are the numbers. Feranmi has been divorced twice, having been a product of divorce herself. She has written three books. Wikipedia has the year she was born, one year before Ade, and the number of awards she has won. She learns that Feranmi has five tattoos, though none are visible. What are they? Where are they?
On Twitter she learns of her personality. Her voice is acerbic. Sometimes funny, most often sarcastic. She is cynical about politics, about marriage, about religion. She considers herself to be enlightened.
On Instagram, she learns that Feranmi is hard to forget. In most of her pictures, she is laughing. Her teeth are large, sharp, and white. Her tongue is pink, and she knows this because Feranmi likes to stick out her tongue often. Sometimes you see just the tip; at other times she shows off the full muscle. Her hair is short, Danai Gurira–style. She is long and waiflike, held to the earth by her eyeliner and large, heavy jewelry. For someone as cynical as she appears to be, she is free with her smiles. There are several Boomerangs of her, moving back and forth, shrugging her shoulders and drinking her coffee.
But there is something else, and it is this thing that causes Mrs. Ajanlekoko to keep swiping through the photos. It is in the cheekbones, in the wide lips and the small forehead. There is no denying that she and Feranmi could be cousins. No, they could be sisters. Even their build is somewhat similar. Mrs. Ajanlekoko has bigger breasts, but from the back, if her hair was up, you could probably confuse the two women.
It doesn’t take long for her to find her husband’s comments. They are all over Feranmi’s Twitter and Instagram. He calls her Fera. She discovers that they knew each other from a time before her. Ade hints at a past relationship often. He constantly calls Feranmi’s attention to it.
@FeraDoesntGiveTwo your video reminds me of that time I made you laugh so hard, you snorted juice out of your nose.
@Ade5029 I remember. Fun times.
@FeraDoesntGiveTwo I get what you mean about Fela. Maybe one day we will go to his shrine again.
@FeraDoesntGiveTwo We are the same—two eyes, one nose, one mouth…
@Ade5029 One bloody bleeding heart.
Mrs. Ajanlekoko doesn’t know what to think. She recalls now that Ade mentioned a woman called Fera a long time ago. A woman he had dated, who had left him without any real explanation. She hadn’t considered that it was the same woman who wrote the book he carried around with him as though it was his bible.
According to her Instagram locations, Feranmi is usually in England, sometimes in France or Germany. As far as she can tell, the woman hasn’t been to Nigeria in a very long time. And her husband hates to travel. They aren’t having an affair. But there is something not quite right.
She looks at a picture, where Feranmi has brought her face quite close to the camera. “No filter, no makeup,” it says in the caption—but her skin is flawless, so she doesn’t need it. Just the other day, Mrs. Ajanlekoko found that her skin was beginning to dry out and crack. Her husband hasn’t noticed, but how can he when his mind and eye are filled up with visions of this other woman?
She finds a video on YouTube, “How to Fade Your Own Hair,” and she follows the step-by-step instructions. It took her a while to find the right video. Initially, she had entered “how to cut your own hair”—too many white women showed up, and since their hair texture was different, their methods might not work for her. So she entered “how to cut your own hair black women,” and found a video with the sort of style she was looking for. The girl, an eighteen-year-old with tiny eyes, has a similar hairstyle to Feranmi’s. And together, Mrs. Ajanlekoko and the eighteen-year-old free her of the hair she has spent years oiling, trimming, twisting to help retain its length and encourage its growth.
The tufts of hair are on the ground about her, reminding her of the scene in The Lorax when the Once-ler is taking the leaves off of the tree. The tree and her hair share the same texture, the same fate. She turns her face this way and that, not sure how she feels about the face looking back at her. Yes, the style makes her look slimmer, her neck longer… but she feels… less.
Still, what does it matter if the hair is long or short? It would be far easier to maintain short hair. She can do a wash-and-go. She will no longer have to spend an hour and a half parting her hair so that she can reach and oil her scalp. She won’t have to plait it to prevent shrinkage. If anything, she is freeing herself. Her tears fall anyway. Her cheeks tremble.
She grabs a broom and sweeps the hair away. The eighteen-year-old is still talking, still dropping tips to whoever will listen. Her voice is high-pitched, continuously on the up. She presses pause and stares at the girl, whose lips are now frozen in a place between joy and confusion. Her eyes are dull and smiling. Perhaps listening to a teenager was not the smartest idea, but the girl is a good teacher for all her youth and lack of experience.
She hears the front door opening, and hovers. What will he say? She couldn’t take it if he was disgusted. She hears him call out to her, but still she stands in the guest toilet and takes deep breaths. He stops calling her, and she steps out. His back is to her. He is flicking through channels on TV. He doesn’t turn around when she calls his name.
She taps his shoulder.
He looks at her, his eyes widen, and then he smiles.
“You like it?”
“You look… I mean… wow.”
They are beaming at each other now. She has done something right.
He moves to her and touches her hair, her neck, her waist. He pulls her to him and kisses her.
“So sexy,” he says into her mouth.
“The hair. And you.”
Next she tries the eyeliner. Feranmi likes it heavy. Sometimes it is all the makeup she wears. Perhaps no one has told her she looks like a raccoon. But Mrs. Ajanlekoko has to admit there is something about it that draws a person in. It gives Feranmi mystery. She looks as though she never follows the status quo.
Just the other day, she tweeted “Fuck Buhari.”
Mrs. Ajanlekoko wonders if her husband’s political views are even his own.
When Ade sees her with the heavy eyeliner, he does not remark on it but he rewards her in bed. They could almost pass for twins now—she and Feranmi, the woman with the sharp tongue. Feranmi, who wears long dresses that never cling to her body. It is because she is so slim. And yet she radiates sex. She reveals barely any skin, but the comments from men usually involve them coming on to her, when they are not cussing her out. If she replies, her replies are careless, lazy, noncombative. She doesn’t give them the response they deserve. She laughs at them. It is as though none of it affects her.
Mrs. Ajanlekoko wonders what that must feel like, not to care what people think of you.
All the days of squeezing into jeans and low-cut tops have done very little for her. Perhaps less skin is more effective. She searches her closet for a free-flowing gown and it takes her a while but she finds a pale blue dress with yellow flowers. It screams “summer,” which is all well and good, since it is summer all year round.
Her brother narrows his eyes when he sees her. “You look… different.”
“She looks great.”
Her brother frowns at her husband’s words.
“Why did you cut your hair?” he asks while reaching his arm out, touching the air where her hair should have been.
“I just got tired of having to detangle and comb it and do all these protective styles. This is much easier.”
He looks concerned and unconvinced. She wishes he could just be happy for her. Why is that so hard for him? His face is frozen in a perpetual look of displeasure.
“I just don’t understand why you would cut your hair…”
“It is just hair.”
“And what is this thing around your eye?”
“Abeg, leave my wife alone. She is beautiful.”
Mrs. Ajanlekoko cannot hide her happiness. Her brother sighs and raises his hands in surrender.
“If you’re happy, then I’m happy.”
Mrs. Ajanlekoko hovers at the entrance to the study. Her husband is wearing a jalabiya. He hasn’t had his bath and he is barefoot. There is a bowl of ogi in his hand, and he scoops another spoonful into his mouth.
“You’re not going?”
“You know who to vote for. Atiku.”
“What? You can’t go by yourself?”
“No. I mean yes. I can.”
“Good. I’ll see you when you get back.”
She stumbles out of the house and the sun threatens to blind her. The government has declared that there will be no vehicles allowed on major roads today, and since her polling booth isn’t far, she walks. The dress she wears today grazes the floor, and the toes that peek out of her slippers are painted a pale pink to match the dress. She thought she would be heading out to vote with her husband. That they would do this together. She is tempted to turn around and head back home, but he would mock her.
There are barely any bodies on the road from her estate to the polling booth. It is quiet, devoid of traffic. As she gets closer, she sees people walking toward her from the expressway, and others come out of estates like her own. They all converge upon the booth. There are too many people and she quickly guesses that her time here will be an hour or two longer than she had estimated. Someone shouts that the newcomers have to queue to write their names. She cannot tell where the pseudo-queue ends or begins. But then what? Nobody is able to tell her if there is a method to the madness.
Perhaps this is why her husband didn’t bother.
An hour has fled. She writes her name down. And then floats. Her feet are beginning to hurt, but there are no chairs. The whole affair appears to be designed to get a potential voter to give up and go home. There is no one for her to talk to. She spends her time scrolling through Instagram. There is a photo of Feranmi’s passport—she is about to make another trip. She has no spouse, no kids to keep her grounded. She could roam the skies forever.
Eventually, they ask those with surnames beginning with A to come forward. The Adeyemis, the Afolabis, the Adisas, the Afias, and then you have Ajanlekoko. She is expecting one sheet; she is given three. She hadn’t realized there were other offices besides the presidential that would be voted for today. She will keep this to herself. The sheets are color-coded. She was expecting names, not parties. She looks around, hoping no one has noticed her confusion and subsequent embarrassment. She experiences a moment of panic. The only parties she knows are APC and PDP. And in this moment, she has realized that neither party appeals to her. Atiku doesn’t appeal to her. Instead, she would like to take a chance on one of the newcomers. Only she doesn’t know the names of any of the newcomers’ parties. She fumbles in her pocket and googles her candidate, makes her choice. Then she presses her thumb into the ink pad and stamps her mark. It is over. If her husband had been here, she would have voted with him, chosen his candidate. But he is at home, ignoring his civic duty, and besides, he will never know what she has done.
The last two offices she leaves to chance—eenie, meenie, miney, mo.
Her stomach grumbles as she makes her way home. She wonders what their cook will have made today. Her eyes are tired but she cannot rub them, lest the eyeliner bruise her face.
When she walks in, the first thing that greets her is laughter. And Ade so rarely laughs. He likes to consider himself a serious sort. She shuts the door behind her. He is not alone. There is a woman’s voice. One she doesn’t recognize. It is low, scratchy, as though the woman has a cough she will never be rid of.
She doesn’t enter the living room. She goes to the guest toilet first. She reapplies her pale pink lipstick. She is pleased to see that the eyeliner is as vivid as ever. Her eyes are still tired, but there is nothing she can do about their faint red color. She steps out of the bathroom.
They turn to her together, as though they are one machine. She feels like the outsider standing at the corridor. Even though she knows this woman.
Feranmi’s eyes triple in size and then she laughs. Her laughter is loud and mocking.
“Ade. What is this?”
“I’m Mrs. Ajanlekoko.”
She walks forward holding out her hand and Feranmi hesitates.
But only for a moment.
TO BE CONTINUED…