Celebrating East African Writing!
“So, what did you do with all that cake?”
“Netsu, after I have just told you the disaster of that day, the cake is what concerns you? Mtsm. Just pass me the comb.”
She slid the bristles through my hair, easing the tangles out along the way, dipping her fingers into a jar of Dax for extra help.
“No, no, sorry mommy. Please continue, forget the cake.”
I’d heard this story before but I still entertained it, as I often do. She tells me each one with the same gusto as when it was still new. Sometimes I can’t feign even an ounce of interest and exasperated, I blurt, “I know, I know, you already told me this story.”
“Oh,” she mumbles, and shrinks away.
I can’t bear to see her shrink like that so I backtrack – “but that’s okay, I want to hear it again. Tell me.”
My mother is the type who thinks she’ll burst open at the seams if she’s made to hold her stories in; if she must swallow her anger, hold her tongue upon mistreatment, and bury her pain, though she does all three more than she cares to admit or show. But most days, she vents and I listen, with ears as open as my mood will allow.
“He said nothing. Barry said nothing. He just lay there on the ground, faking injury, even though we all had a bird’s eye view of his invisible wounds.”
Barry is the first father I ever had, a placeholder of sorts for the first two years of my life. But as soon as he learned the truth, he vanished, in much the same way as my real one.
“As they say, silence speaks louder than words. He loved Eve, long past their six-month union. But I wanted him to pick me, I wanted to be chosen, to be someone’s wife finally, wholesome and stable and respectable. But Satan knew too much, with her big mouth and cheap weave.”
I already knew who Satan was.
“As Eve stood there chanting ‘they have a daughter, they have a daughter, they have a daughter’ through blurry tears, she told on herself. She loved Barry, too.
Satan said ‘do they or does she?’
That jolted Barry back to life. In the next instant, it seemed his cuts and bruises had healed and he staggered to his feet with bewildered eyes.
‘Amina, what is Shiku saying?’
‘Barry, what is Shiku saying?’
That moment broke us. We knew too much to continue pretending that we didn’t.”
The cake became inconsequential, that’s what happened to it.
Of course I don’t remember any of this, 2-years-old and swaddling around the wedding reception hall in my poofy white dress. I was the ‘daughter,’ oblivious to the drama unfolding in my name. Who did I belong to – Barry or someone else?
12 years later, I at least have the answer to that but not much more. I know my father’s name and homeland. Tariku from Addis Abeba. I learned that my face looks more like his than my mother’s when I was 5-years-old, rifling through her stashed away memories in her night table. A small 3×3 black and white photo of a stranger floated in the palm of my hands. And I knew. I ran my fingers on the grainy thick surface, across his wide almond eyes, round-tipped nose, and thick wavy black hair.
After that day, I imagined now that I knew what he looked like, he couldn’t accidentally walk past our house, missing it entirely, lost and confused. I’d be able to spot him from my window and run out to welcome him home. Help him set down his bags, lugged all the way from Addis Abeba. Did he bring everything he needed? It’s okay if he forgot some stuff, Abdi at the corner shop sells everything. Bars of soap, gum, socks. I’d bring him a cool glass of water to cut his traveler’s thirst. And show him my mommy’s room which would soon be theirs to share, just like Sara’s parents down the road.
Of course none of that ever happened. Tariku never came to be with us in Nairobi. But maybe when I’m old enough I’ll meet him, and Addis, and the other half of me. Whenever I’d meet Ethiopian kids at school, I latched on to them and asked if they knew a man named Tariku. And when they didn’t, I still pretended we were distant cousins who couldn’t quite confirm it yet.
“Why didn’t you tell Barry the truth from the beginning?”
“And risk my chance with a man ready to commit to me? I was tired of my family’s incessant chatter about pushing 32 and my habit of changing men as often as the seasons and ‘Please, do not disgrace us like your older sister. We are not a family of unmarried, lonely daughters.’
It was bad enough that I had a child outside of marriage. But at least the promise that I’d soon settle down into a lull life sustained them. Add single motherhood to that heap and you have yourself a full blown fire. I was already scorched by their demands of me.
Sometimes I wished I had stayed in South Africa after university. Durban liberated the many women in me and I could choose which one suited the day. I saw Tariku as Durban and Barry as Nairobi – home, safety, familiar. And I didn’t always feel the choice was mine.”
I let go of the last row and her chunky fingers plaited each piece under the other til we were both free. I grabbed the round mirror by its handle and turned my head side to side to admire my fresh cornrows. The pain was always worth it; yes, even the repetitive stories. I met my mother’s eyes in the frame.
“I tell you over and over so you know that, more valuable than someone choosing you is you choosing yourself. Always choose you, Netsanet.”
By: Genet Lakew
Genet Lakew is a diasporic East African [Ethiopia] writer living in New York City. She’s enamored with storytelling, feminism, black diasporic connections, and the minutiae beauty of ordinary life.
Her quarter century year is dedicated to being driven less by the embedded need to be good, stable, and safe, and more by authenticity and freedom.
Shiro, spiced tea, advanced knowledge of Dwight K. Schrute personality traits and quotes, and warm brownies are the most direct ways to her heart. She blogs about diasporic identity and womanhood, and takes a stab at photography on WordPress and tweets @betwixtandbtwn.