The sight of her brings her dread
Her perfume repugnant brings fear
Her smile is spiteful
Her voice destroys
Her palms is sweaty
Filled like a glass blasted by the rain.
Still, she stands and looks devoid
Beaming outwardly for that love
That love despising and disgraceful
Leah’s mother sat in a slim, light brown armchair staring at Leah with an indecipherable expression. She sat with her back straight and her fingers laced over her crossed knees. A few inches above them, her deep blue, knee-length dress lay hiked, revealing creamy, smooth, brown skin that matched Leah’s. Her children got their looks from her. In her late forties, she appeared half her age. With her lacquered manicured red nails, six inch heels and her carefully coiffed hair, she could pass for Leah’s slightly older sister. A fact she took great pride in.
She sat very still with her head slightly tilted. Her eyes began to move languidly over the airy visitor’s lounge, taking it in. They stayed briefly on a heavy man in the corner, sobbing with his arms around his equally heavy daughter whom Leah had seen around the place- she always offered Leah a smile, but kept mostly to herself. Her mother’s lips twisted in distaste at their display of emotion.
When her attention retuned to Leah, it was with striking scrutiny. Her disconcerting light, brown contacts bore into Leah, making her want to fidget. She squelched it firmly and instead focused on the gold, statement necklace around her mother’s neck.
“I’ll admit,” her mother said dryly, her voice, smooth and cultured. “I didn’t know what to expect. I thought this place would be hell but it is…. Not bad. Maybe I should come here when I need a break,” she said.
Leah caught the subtle implication that her stay there was nothing more than a tantrum.
Her voice turned brittle. “You should. It’s nice.”
Her mother nodded briefly, a small smile that didn’t reach her eyes appearing. “You know I’m very angry with you, Lee lee,” she said. “You haven’t called since you got here. You didn’t give your brother a message for me. I can understand if you treat other people like that, but not me.”
Her unblinking eyes rested on Leah. Leah tried to match her gaze, but finally caved. “I’m sorry, Mama.”
Her mother’s smile widened and she nodded again. “Good girl.”
Her mother began to tell her about the things she had missed in the few weeks she had been away from home. Who had come visiting. Her projects at work. Complaints about her grandfather and brother.
”I guess it is to be expected. They are men after all. You can try to refine them but they remain animals. It’s not like us,” her mother said. She reached out and held her hand out to Leah. She waited patiently for Leah to lean forward and place her hand in hers. “We’re special,” her mother said.
Leah had heard those words many times in the years after her parent’s divorce. Her mother had never been overtly maternal. Both her parents had always preferred each other’s company to their children. But after the divorce, her mother had grown significantly harder. While father eventually remarried, Leah’s mother remained single, living with them in their Grandfather’s house, channeling all her energy into her career in banking, and evolving a severe disliking for men which extended to her own son.
When they were growing up Stephen had spent most of his time and energy trying to please her. She’d offer him a distant smile, dismissing him with a wave of her hand while she led Leah away for their girls’ only moments. Leah and Stephen never spoke about it, but Leah knew how hurt he had been.
She pulled her hand out of her mother’s.
“Don’t you have to go home? It’s getting late,” she said to her mother.
“Are you chasing me? I came to spend time with my favorite child,” her mother replied.
As always, Leah gave in and let her mother fill the conversation with small talk. Her mother stayed for another half an hour, before she rose, smoothing down the creases in her dress. Leah rose too, dwarfed by her in flat shoes.
“Walk out with me,” her mother instructed.
She obeyed, leaving the visitor’s lounge and walking down a hallway towards the entrance. As they approached it, Dr Sulo appeared around a corner and Leah’s heart sank. She was the last person she wanted to meet her mother.
Dr. Sulo wore a simple white dress. Her right hand clutched a thin file loosely. Her gaze moved back and forth from Leah to her mother as they walked towards each other.
The three of them drew to a stop as they met in the middle of the hall. Her mother glanced from Leah to Dr. Sulo proceeding to size the woman up. Her eyes moved from her plain face to her ugly, sensible shoes.
“Leah,” Dr. Sulo said. “Is this your mother? I see the resemblance.”
“Yes,” Leah replied and introduced them. Dr. Sulo smiled and said a polite hello. Her mother murmured a reply.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Dr. Sulo said.
Her mother ignored the pleasantries. “You’re her therapist?”
Dr. Sulo nodded.
Leah’s mother’s eyes turned cold. “Don’t fill my daughter’s head with nonsense,” she commanded.
The two women stared each other down, neither giving in to the other. Leah’s mother looked away first, turning to Leah. Her voice lost its hardness when she addressed her. “I’m leaving. I’ll talk to you later, Lee Lee.”
Her mother walked around Dr. Sulo, her heels clicking against the tiles until she disappeared out of the door. Leah remained standing with Dr Sulo, acutely uncomfortable.
She apologized for her mother.
Dr Sulo shrugged it off. “You should only apologize for yourself. You can’t control anyone else’s actions.”
Leah continued to stand with her as people shuffled past. She didn’t like the way Dr Sulo was staring at her, gauging her, as though she had seen her in new light.
“Good bye Dr. Sulo,” Leah said quickly.
“Goodbye, Leah,” Dr. Sulo replied as Leah walked away.
Leah was quiet the rest of the day. She sat in the circle at Education group, drawing her knees up and resting her chin on them. The Psychiatrist, Nnenna, went on about manic depression, every now and then gesturing to the images of carefully curated information flashing on the projector before them. Afterwards, for the first time Leah chose to spend rec time holed up in her room. She sat by the window, the door wide open behind her, watching people play sports and laugh amongst themselves.
Leah’s mind kept looping back to her mother’s visit. She replayed it over and over again, each time it upset her a bit more until she felt half crazed, ready to pull out her own hair. By night she was exhausted emotionally.
After Closure group, she walked out of the building into the open air, staring straight ahead at the empty field.
“Leah,” Ter said, appearing beside her. He took one look at her face.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine, Ter,” she said, her voice devoid of emotion.
He didn’t appear convinced.
“You shouldn’t be talking to me here before they see us. I don’t want you to get into trouble for no reason,” she told him, quickly before he pressed her for what was wrong.
“No one’s watching,” he said, placing his hand lightly on her arm.
She shrugged him off. She just wasn’t in the mood tonight.
“I’m really tired today, Ter,” she said, already backing away from him. “I think I’m going to crash early.”
He began to speak but she cut in. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said and quickly turned away and headed inside. Tomorrow she would make it up to him.
Leah went straight to her room. She flicked on the light switch and stood, unmoving in the doorway. It was quiet at first and then she heard the sounds of a male voice trickling in from Mamita’s room. She moved to the connecting door tentatively and pressed her ear to it. She heard the voice again, clearer this time, followed by Mamita’s giggles. Leah took a step back. Mamita had been exempted from her usual schedule the last two days because she had told the attendants she was battling extreme cramps.
Leah had known immediately that it wasn’t true, but she had been worried that Mamita wanting to be alone had to do with the message she had received on the field. A message she was sure came from a man on the outside. Now she saw there was another one in the Centre involved as well.
Not wanting to be in the room when the giggles on the other side turned into something more, her gaze swept over the room looking for an out. She spotted her open journal, and remembered she was supposed to be meeting J.J. at this time. She heaved a sigh of relief and grabbed the notebook she designated for her poetry exercises and left the room, jogging out of the building to where they had agreed to meet.
Even late she was the first one there. “Nigerians,” she complained.
Leah was good at poetry in the same way she was good at most things. She picked it up easily and found enjoyment in it. There was something soothing about it. She didn’t particularly like being made to write as part of the exercises. Dr. Sulo pushed them into it, insisting that it would help them express their deeper emotions. To Leah it took the fun out of it and made it work. It took the simplicity and dirtied it a bit with their lives.
But she had promised she would help him and it was exactly what she needed now to occupy her thoughts.
Leah wasn’t quite sure how she felt about J.J. Originally she had been neutral. He was nice to look at which was a plus, but he possessed a certain air of arrogance that rubbed her the wrong way- especially after what had happened with Ter. His apology had made her less averse to him, but she was still glad Emeka was coming. She would not have to be alone with him, and Emeka was light and humorous.
She sat on the bare grass, folding her legs beneath her. The grass was damp but she didn’t care. She’d only been waiting a few minutes when she heard footsteps and muffled conversation behind her.
“Okay, okay, I’m ready,” she heard Emeka say. She didn’t turn but waited for them to reach her.
“You’re late,” she said, looking up at them.
“Sorry,” J.J. said, sounding anything but apologetic. “We had a lot to do.” He smiled at her. The white of his teeth contrasting with his dark skin and the black t-shirt and jeans he had on.
Emeka looked particularly nice this evening. He was usually in old t-shirts and faded jeans but tonight he wore a blue long sleeved shirt and nice jeans.
“I’m not even going to ask what that means. Hey Emeka. You look nice. Special somebody?” she asked with a smile, wiggling her eyebrows.”
From where she sat she caught a whiff of his strong perfume.
Emeka broke into a bashful smile. His gaze flit from hers to J.J.’s unamused face and he immediately composed himself and managed, “Well, yeah, she is.”
Leah laughed, feeling better about coming out.
“Sit,” she told them.
Emeka immediately did, taking a spot beside her in his nice trousers.
“Special invitation?” she asked J.J., raising an eyebrow.
He shook his head. “No thanks,” he nodded to the grass. “Dirt.”
“Too clean to get yourself dirty?” she mocked.
J.J. gave her a strange look.
“What?” she asked.
“I’ve gotten myself very dirty already.”
Somehow she didn’t think they were still talking about the grass.
“If you sit down on the ground I promise to be extra nice to you,” Leah offered.
He inclined his head, appearing to be considering it.
“How nice?” he questioned, suggestively.
She thought about Ter and her mouth twisted. “Not that nice. Sit please. We have work to do.”
J.J. appeared torn. Just when it seemed he would give in, Emeka cut in.
“J.J. where’s your book?”
J.J. glanced down at Emeka. They stared at each other for a long moment. Leah frowned in confusion.
“You guys know that you can just use mine, right? I’ll tear out the page and give it to you later. It’s not that deep.”
J.J.’s eyes left Emeka and returned to her. “Nah, I like mine,” he said drily. “You guys wait for me. I’ll go get it and be right back.”
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Leah complained.
“There’s enough,” he said, cryptically and pushing into movement, walking away slowly. She heard him whistling as he disappeared.
Alone, Leah and Emeka quieted. He had plopped down quite close to her, she noticed, and put some space between them, turning her body in his direction. Her legs were crossed Indian style.
She smiled at him. “You don’t need help with your poetry, do you? Because I’m really not that good. Besides, I like you. You should do what they tell you to do so you can leave this place faster. J.J. can stay forever if he wants.”
Emeka grinned. “No, no help needed. I’m a beast,” he bragged.
Leah looked doubtful. “You are?”
“I am, “he replied confidently, turning in her direction. “I do a lot of it, so yeah. There’s this bar in Wuse. Not too big. Kind of hidden. We have Spoken Word every Friday night and people just drink and have fun. You should come. Open mic is on Fridays.”
Leah laughed. “No, no.”
“I think you’ll be good. You have that energy. I can sense it.”
Leah shook her head resolutely. “No. It’s not my thing but I’ll come and watch you.”
Emeka was pleased. “Really?”
“Really,” she confirmed.
He eyed her. “Good. So you want to hear one?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding.
Emeka pushed closer to her on the ground. His gaze was intense as he began,
The shock of my feelings was instant. A bolt.
Alerting me to visual of her that threatened my sanity
Her smile, her frowns, her distant stares
I noted them down, became accustomed to them
The Jolt was also there, steadily encouraging
in a manner that never left me
I couldn’t remember how not to feel or show how I felt
Instead I stared at her openly and in secret
Silently relishing my pleasures, taking in her beauty
Her wits, the gentle sway of her hips, her laugh
They consumed me, making me sweat at just the thought
Making me doubts my strength, my intelligence
Still, I crave them, crave her, every part of her
Now am seething with need, a desire to try
Now I need to expose myself, to put these out there
Making all feelings bare and hoping for approval
I would take anything from her
I would be content for her
Because my heart would do what it needs – simply to love
He finished his spoken word and waited patiently for her to react. She stared at him, uncomfortably. She had been in this position more times than she cared for. Usually before venturing too deeply into friendships with men, she liked to make it clear that that was all they would be. But with Emeka and most of the people here it hadn’t felt necessary. They were all there for such a short time. There were ships passing at sea.
“Emeka,” she began carefully. “You’re really good.”
The hope reflected in his face dimmed considerably. He knew what was coming.
“I love the poem,” Leah continued. “It’s so, so good.”
“But?” he prompted.
She gave him a small smile. “But….”
“No,” he interrupted. “Don’t worry. No need to finish sef.”
Leah continued to stare at him with a pained expression on her face.
“I wrote it for you,” Emeka said, turning away from her to the open space. “I’ll write it out and give to you later. Keep it,” he said and joked after a moment. “Laminate it and store it somewhere safe so you can show your children you knew me before I was famous.”
Leah smiled, relaxing a bit. “Thank you,” she said softly.
She turned away too and they lapsed into a short silence.
“J.J. is taking too long,” she noted.
“Mmm,” he murmured, looking down at the grass between his open feet.
“Emek…” Leah began but he moved swiftly, jumping to his feet and dusting off his palms.
“This place has mosquitoes. Let’s go inside.”
She examined his face for a second then rose quietly. She cleaned her hands off on her jeans. They were dirty now anyway.
They walked back quietly. She clutched her notebook in both hands, her mind churning furiously.
“Emeka,” she said, without beating around. “Did J.J. set us up?”
Emeka couldn’t hold her gaze. He muttered something unintelligible under his breath and escaped in the direction of the male dormitory.
Leah remained where she was. It was such a small thing. Miniscule compared to the things she had seen in her life, but for some reason it enraged her. Maybe it was the day she had had, maybe it was having to be put in that position with Emeka, but Leah was more upset than she had been in a long, long time. She wanted to punch J.J. in his stupid, arrogant face. She wanted to hurt him. She was tired of people always thinking they could do whatever they wanted with her. She wouldn’t take it anymore.
This time she would do something about it.
True to his word, Mr. Melvin had pulled Ter from all of her groups and J.J. had taken his place. The next day Leah was still seething as they sat almost directly opposite each other in the circle of chairs. He sat pretty low in the chair, clearly uninterested. His face seemed drawn, tired. The room was chillier than usual. It was raining heavily outside.
The question for the session was, “What is your golden rule?” It was supposed to get them to delve into the principles they lived by. Leah had to resist the urge to roll her eyes at the question. She wasn’t sure how they came up with these things but each one was more cliche than the last.
Leah tore a piece of paper out of her notebook and wrote one word and folded it neatly. When the Psychiatrist, Sylvannus’ attention was diverted, she passed it to the person next to her and whispered directions.
The paper moved steadily until it got to J.J. who hesitated before collecting it. Leah watched him unfold it and read. His forehead pulled together in a frown. He looked up at the person who handed it to him, but the young man ignored him, focusing on the Psychiatrist . J.J. looked around until he came to her and she stared back directly at him, her hostility clear on her face and in her demeanour.
“Liar,” she mouthed.
“Leah,” the Psychiatrist said. “What’s your golden rule?”
Leah turned her head to Sylvannus, sitting straighter in her chair.
“Hmmm,” she said pretending to think and said with a mocking smile, “Love God. No, nooo. Love your neighbour.”
People laughed. Slyvannus gave her a patient look. “Yes, for many those are the golden rules. But what’s yours personally. Be honest.”
Leah sighed. She glanced at J.J. “Don’t lie to people. Don’t think you’re superior to other people. Don’t think you know better than them how to live their lives,” she said. “What do you think J.J? What’s your golden rule? Do unto others?”
J.J sat up in his chair. “No,” he said his gaze on her. “A friend in need is a friend indeed. What do you think?” he asked, turning to the Psychiatrist . “Isn’t it important to help other people?”
The Psychiatrist nodded. “It certainly is. Depending on the situation and context, of course.”
“Yes, situation and context,” Leah jumped in. “Something any reasonable person would consider before they act.”
J.J. quieted, eyeing at her. At first, she refused to look away under the force of his gaze, but eventually she turned, finding Sylvannus watching her. He said nothing about the exchange, just moved on to others. At the close of group, he asked them both to wait behind.
“We all have our issues but this is not the place to fix them,” Sylvannus said.
“I thought this was the exact place for our problems ,”J.J. said smirking.
Slyvnanus shot him a look. “Real problems. Not your stupid sexual tension,” he said wiping J.J.’s smile. “Now get out.”
They left the room together. As soon as they were in the hall, Leah bunched her fist and hit J.J. in the shoulder as hard as she could. The force of her pushed him a step back, his other hand went to his offended shoulder. His eyes narrowed, his shoulders tensed.
“What the hell?” he demanded.
She took a threatening step forward. He remained in position, bringing her close to him.
“Listen to me,” she ordered. “Don’t you ever, ever, eeeeever, think you have the right to do something like what you did with Emeka yesterday. I don’t know you. I don’t like you. I have zero ties to you. It’s not okay for you to interfere in people’s lives like you’re God. Are you? Are you? No? Then stay away from me. We won’t be here for long. Let’s all mind our business and leave in peace. I don’t know what your problem is but it obviously runs very deep, and I just don’t care enough to be included in it.”
Leah took a step back and examined him to make sure her message had been received, then she turned and walked away.