The Women Who Saved Me
I’m 9 and my mom is trying to wrangle me into standing still. She is trying to make my wrap skirt look graceful over a pair of shorts. The shorts are there because, despite my mom’s best efforts, I cannot be trusted to keep this skirt tied throughout the day. As my mom carefully folds the length of brightly colored Nigerian fabric over my hips, I whine, “Do I really have to wear this to school today?”
My mom, a white lady from Kansas — still grieving her husband and my father, who went home to Nigeria and never came back — takes a deep breath and looks me in the eye and says, “It is Nigerian Independence Day and you are Nigerian.” She finishes my skirt and moves on to tying my headwrap.
I’m 12 and there’s a naked man asleep on my backpack. I’m going to be late for the bus. I’m going to miss school. Because this man — this man who has ruined so much of our lives — is passed out on our couch completely naked. He’s the first grown man I’ve ever seen naked in real life and I know even at 12 that this means that there is something shamefully wrong happening in our house. My backpack is under his naked ass.
I stand there, frozen, unsure what to do. I don’t want to wake my mom. I don’t want her to know that I’ve seen this. I don’t want her to realize that for some reason her life right now has her telling her sometimes-boyfriend/sometimes-dude-who-lives-in-our-detached-apartment-garage-when-his-roomates-kick-him-out that he needs to get his naked ass off of her daughter’s backpack so that she can go to school.
I call my friend Darnesha, desperately whispering my predicament over the kitchen phone.
“I’ll be right over,” she says.
She shows up, yanks the backpack out from under his ass like it’s something she does every Tuesday and hands it to me. She looks at him, shakes her head, and laughs at his snoring body.
I’m 13 and I’m absolutely miserable. I’m a poor, nerdish, tall, chubby, black teenager in a white Seattle suburb. And I’m in middle school. I’m in the advanced program in school and I haven’t turned in a single assignment all quarter. My teachers are sending home worried letters. My mom is reading my diary and scouring the liner notes of my favorite CDs to see if there are clues to my depression in the lyrics.
And my art teacher has made a space for me.
She has given up her planning period to create a class for me and one other kid. It says “Independent Study” on my class schedule. He’s the gay kid and I’m the black kid and we’re both kids whose only friend is art.
She buys us all the colored pencils and paint we want. She brings in feathers and boxes and beads. She brings in an entire cow hide.
I make collages about how lonely I am. All my self portraits are painted in blue.
She looks at my collages and says, “The problem isn’t you. The problem is this place. You’re stuck in a very small world right now, because you’re a kid. But every year your world will get wider. And even though you are always going to be a rare bird, there are too many people in this world for you to not find your people one day. Just wait.”
I hold on to that until it comes true.
I’m 19 and I’m talking about a shitty dude again. We’ve been dating for a few weeks and he’s already taking up all the space in my brain with his manipulations.
As I talk to my friend about our problems, her older sister cuts me off.
“You’re more interesting than this,” she says.
“What?” I say, taken completely by surprise.
“I SAID: YOU. ARE. MORE. INTERESTING. THAN. THIS.”
I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach so I decide not to hear her.
I’m turning 21 and I’m still with this shitty dude, and we have a baby. I haven’t left the house in weeks, but my family has flown into town for the holidays and my cousin is getting ready with me to celebrate my big 21st birthday.
My husband is stomping around the house. He’s complaining about the mess we’re making. He’s complaining about how I did the dishes. He’s asking why I have to go out and why we can’t just live clean lives like he wants us to. He asks if I should really be going out when I have a young son at home. He talks about the breastmilk I’ll have to throw in the trash if I drink too much.
“Stop it,” my cousin finally says, “Just stop.”
“Stop what?” my husband asks, incredulous, “Stop caring about my family?”
“Stop trying to ruin this for her,” my cousin says, looking him square in the eye, “I know what you’re doing. You are mad that she has friends and family and you don’t want her to have anyone but you. You’re trying to ruin her evening. You’re trying to make it so that it’s not worth it for her to have a life. It is your wife’s birthday and we are going to go have fun and she is going to go drink and you are not going to ruin it for her.”
I’m now a few days past 21 and I’m begging my husband to give me my son back. He’s ripped my son out of my arms because I went on a walk with my cousins and didn’t bring my cell phone with me. He didn’t know where I was. He didn’t know where his son was. Now our son has a wet diaper and this is my fault that I let him sit in a wet diaper for 45 minutes while I pushed him in his stroller. He says that I am a bad mom and I don’t deserve our son.
I do not like the look in his eye when he’s holding my baby and I beg him to give me my son back. I’m begging in front of my entire extended family, still here for their holiday visit. People are gently urging him to give my son back to me. He hands me the baby and storms out. I clutch my son to me and I don’t feel embarrassment or shame — nothing but relief.
My mom walks up to me, puts her hand on my shoulder and gently says, “Honey, I think you’ve tried hard enough. You can let go of this now.”
My cousins take me shopping for bedding and dishware and trash bags and everything else I need. I call my landlord and ask if he has a vacant apartment I can move into.
“One that your husband can’t get to?” He says immediately. I’ve never discussed my marriage with my landlord. I didn’t know how obvious it was.
“Yes.” I say.
He calls me back after a few minutes to tell me that he found me an apartment across town that I can afford. No deposit.
“I took the liberty of telling him that he’s not allowed to burn your stuff. That if your belongings aren’t boxed up and ready for your family to pick up, that he’ll be violating his lease and will be evicted. It’s not technically true, but he’s not going to look it up,” he says.
My cousins help me move my stuff in. I have a bed, a crib, a chair, some clothes, and dishes. I spend the entire night painting my son’s room blue with a border of brightly colored stars. I spend the next day painting the livingroom pink.
My great-grandmother comes by to take me for a walk.
“I was still pretty young when my husband died — in my fifties,” my great-grandmother says as we slowly walk around my apartment complex, “A lot of people told me, “You can marry again.””
“But for thirty years a man told me what I could and couldn’t do. For thirty years I lived with someone else’s anger,” she didn’t look at me, and her voice didn’t change from it’s grandmotherly, conversational tone, “And when he died I swore that I was never going to live like that again. And for over 40 years nobody has told me what to do. I’ve lived my own life.”
She patted me on the shoulder and we walked in silence for a while.
I’m 23 and I’m trying to explain to a friend about the bad night I’d had. How the man that I had broken up with, but had not gotten my key back from yet had shown up in my bedroom at 1am. How I’d said that I wanted him to leave but he didn’t. How I’d said that I didn’t want to have sex but we did.
“That’s rape,” she said.
“No, I wouldn’t call it that,” I started to protest, “It’s just — “
“No, Ijeoma,” she said firmly, with pain and shock in her eyes, “That is rape. You said no and he didn’t listen to you. That is rape.”
I pause and let my defenses of him die in my throat.
“Maybe, maybe it is,” I say.
I am 26 and I’m back in school. I’ve got a little boy in kindergarten and we have a tiny apartment and rats have eaten through all of the cupboards. We have no money, no car. I’m at school full time and I’m working from home in the evenings and I’m exhausted. I have no friends and no time but I’m doing well in classes, and my son is happy. I know that being older than most of the other students, and being a mom, I don’t really fit in. But that’s not all. I’m studying Political Science and in this very liberal and progressive group of students I feel very distinctly that there’s a reason why I’m not connecting to my classmates the way that others are. I feel distinctly that there’s a reason why so often the curriculum that is being taught makes me feel invisible. But everyone is saying the right things. Everyone is talking about fighting “the man” and fighting “the white supremacist patriarchy,” so…maybe it’s just me.
“This place is so racist,” my professor says to me in a thick French accent.
She’s a white professor from France, who specializes in African history and the impact of colonialism on countries once ruled by France. She’s on loan to our university because her husband has taken a job here. She has a son the same age as mine. She asked if maybe we could get the kids together or have some coffee. When we’re sipping our coffee and I ask how she is liking the Pacific Northwest, this is what she says to me.
“This place is so racist.”
“Hmm??” I say. This is not the response I’m expecting from a white, French woman.
“This whole place,” she continues with a look of disgust on her face, “Everyone here is racist. None of the white people here want anything to do with people of color. Everybody here looks down on the Indigenous people here. Everybody here clutches their purses around black men. All of the politicians act like people of color don’t exist. But nobody will admit it. Everybody is just pretending that they love black people and brown people and they don’t have any black or brown people in their lives. I’ve seen racism. I’ve seen firsthand how horrible French people are to black and brown people. But at least they will say it to your face. This here will drive you crazy.”
I nod my head and think to myself, “Ahh….yes…that’s what it is.”
I’m 32 and my 12 year old son is home from the hospital. I’m terrified and confused and I don’t know how to help him when I can’t seem to breathe. I’m calling doctors and specialists and I can’t find one who will work with him — or I find one who will work with him but they won’t take our insurance.
I have no resources and no help and I sit in my car in the driveway before entering the house gasping for breath saying to myself, “This isn’t about you. This is about him. Help him. You can fix you later.”
I wipe my tear-stained face and try to pat down the puffiness of my eyes and walk back into the house trying my best to look like the confident, dependable mom that my son needs.
My friend asks me to come get a drink with her. It would make her feel better, she says, to spend some time with me. I know that is not actually true. Her mother has just died unexpectedly and I can see my son’s battle bringing it all up in her. Her pain is very fresh and true. But she still tells me that I’m helping her as she asks me how I’m doing. And I cry and cry and rage and she doesn’t tell me, “It’s not about you.” She just cries too and buys me another drink and eventually we’re laughing about how ridiculous we must look, bawling in this grubby bar.
I’m 33 and I’m trying to write. I have this urgent need to say something. To make this about me for once. And I’m having a panic attack. I’m going to write about my life. I’m going to write about things that matter to me. I’m too old to start writing. This is too self-indulgent. I don’t have the right. I’m pretty sure I’m a horrible writer. I’m bawling as if with my words I’m committing a great crime. And yet, part of my brain is saying, “You have to do this. You have to say something.”
So I ask my brother if he’ll read what I wrote. He gives it to his girlfriend, who is a writer. She tells me that it’s really great. She asks if she can show it to her editor. My brother assures me that she’s not lying. That it’s really a great piece.
I say okay and then I hyperventilate for two days.
The piece goes live and the world doesn’t end. Some people really like it. Some people don’t. Some people tell me that I don’t have the right to talk about these things.
But I didn’t die, and I have more to say, so I keep writing.
I finish another piece and I’m convinced that it is the worst thing that anybody has ever written. And it doesn’t have an opening paragraph. I stare at the Word document for two days and I can’t come up with an opening paragraph. All the rest is done, but it kind of bursts onto the page like it’s interrupting something more interesting.
I ask my friends on Facebook, “Does anybody want to read this awful thing I wrote?”
A handful of women volunteer. I don’t know them well at all. They are busy writers with careers and families and still, they volunteer. They read through my piece and give gentle pointers. One woman finds the opening paragraph buried near the end of the piece. None of them tell me that it is the worst thing they’ve ever read.
I submit the piece to a website that another woman recommends. It’s accepted. It gets reprinted in TIME magazine. I feel like I’m getting away with something that I shouldn’t.
I have more words in my body and I keep writing them. I’m still convinced they are all trash. I’m still convinced that someone will say, “Have you noticed that Ijeoma is a horrible writer?” and the spell will be broken and everyone will realize that they’ve been tricked and I’ll never write again. With every piece I still ask, “Does anybody want to read this awful thing I wrote?” and the same women raise their hands.
Eventually I leave the “awful” part out.
Eventually I don’t have to ask anymore.
One day, after about a year and a half of writing publicly. After a year and a half of waiting for someone to tell me that they’ve all finally realized that I’m a shit writer and that it has been selfish of me to take up their time with my words, I start to think of what my friend’s sister said to me when I was 19.
It keeps popping into my head randomly — interrupting my obsession with the judgements of others that only I can hear.
“You’re more interesting than this.”
And I finally get it.