The way the other side lives
© June 2016 Folakemi Emem-Akpan
You have had a second hand experience of the way the other side lives. You have seen and then practiced the loose-limbed yet regal walk of the confident, and you’ve drank tea with your pinky finger sticking out like the rich do.
But you do not belong, at least not as completely as you’d want. A part of you whispers that you wouldn’t belong even in a thousand years, but a stronger part wants to fight for a shot at living the good life.
You are the last of four girls, a mistake as Tomi calls you. You came at a time when your parents’ union was falling apart, and you were literarily the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Already hopelessly weighted down by the burden of sustaining a wife and three daughters on the shoestring budget of an office messenger, your father was long gone before you were even born.
To cater for four kids, your mother took all the jobs she could get, and because she had sacrificed a basic education to run away at sixteen and into marriage, there was not much she could do but clean houses. Your earliest memories of your mother are the smell of sour sweat and disinfectant and an occasional uniform. In your memories, she is usually on her knees scrubbing or bent over washing or ironing clothes.
The sister closest to you in age is six years older and the difference between you and the eldest is a whopping twelve years, so they were never really like sisters to you, but like distant older cousins. And this was compounded by the fact that your mother dragged you to every house cleaning job she had, and you never really got to interact with your siblings. Besides, you were the mistake that sent daddy packing.
Tomi even insinuated that perhaps you were not really daddy’s daughter; perhaps that was the real reason daddy went away. All your life, guilt bunched in your chest at the sight of your mother’s scrunched face, at the sound of the sighs that fizzled out of her quite so often. The one time you ever saw her cry, you averted your face quickly and burrowed your face, your entire being, into the crook of your arm, shaken that adults, that your adult mother, this strong woman that the sun rose and set in her eyes, could cry.
For a very brief moment in your life, God had mercy on you. Your mother was employed by a wealthy woman to come clean house four days a week, and as usual, you went along. There you met Cynthia, Cynthia of the large white eyes and pink lips and eyes that filled easily with tears. Cynthia who only had to sit on the floor in preparation for a tantrum before what she asked for was hastily and apologetically thrust into her arms.
Cynthia was seven the September you met her, just two days younger than you were. And because Cynthia got what Cynthia wanted, you became Cynthia’s friend. Yes, she was the first child, the heiress to the mansion, and you were the child of the hired help, but fate had somehow brought you together.
While your mother bent and scrubbed, you had tea parties with Cynthia and her mum, a thin hawk-like woman who ate even less than you two did, and who was always looking at your mother with suspicious eyes as if your mother would make away with the silver.
One day, Cynthia divided her wardrobe into two equal halves and handed you half, and because none of the adults in her life had the backbone to tell her no, you had more ball gowns than your tattered suitcase could hold, gowns that cost more apiece than what your mother spent on groceries in two months. In your church and in your neighbourhood, you in an instant became the best dressed little girl. You wore frilly pink ballerina gowns with matching bows in your hair, white lacy socks and black Cortina shoes. You wore blue denim jeans that looked like they just came out of the factory and cartoon character T-shirts.
You knew who Barbie was, who Cinderella was, who Snow White was. You knew about the evil stepmother, the wicked witch, and Ken. You knew things that children from your neighbourhood didn’t.
You ate food that they didn’t; pizzas and hamburgers and French fries and ketchup. You ate ofe nsala so choked with meat you needed separate plates for soup and meat. One day, you and Cynthia demolished a whole roasted chicken; you both would bite into succulent parts and then throw away the remaining until the floor was littered with half eaten, perfectly good pieces of meat.
Your mother looked longingly at the meat-littered floor, but bent to sweep them all into the trash can as she was instructed to.
You became the product of two worlds, torn between those two worlds. You loved your family, you loved the slight familiar coarseness of your mother’s palms as they grazed your face, you loved the way your sisters teased you and bought you little gifts with their own money. But you loved the comfort of Cynthia’s home more. You loved the air conditioned rooms, the huge TV screens, the ability to change between cable TV channels with only a remote control.
Then as all good things usually did, the wonderful halcyon days came to a staggering end. Cynthia and her mother were moving to the USA to go live with her daddy, and their house was going to be permanently boarded up. They were gone within three weeks, and life became radically different.
At eight, you were too old to be dragged along to mama’s other cleaning jobs, too young to be induced into your elder sisters’ lives, so you got left behind in the two rooms you all shared a lot. You remember waking up early in the morning to fight for bathroom space with the four other families you shared the face me I face you with. You remember queuing to purchase breakfast and then lunch for school because Mama only had time to cook in the evenings. You remember school and the tattered uniforms and gray faces and torn books and the horrible smells of bodies not properly groomed.
And in the afternoons, you were always alone. Your eldest sister found a husband quickly enough, and the next one fought her way into a university admission soon after. And at fourteen, with all the sophistication of a secondary school student, Tomi would rather be caught dead than in your company.
You retreated into books, found solace in the world of make-belief, where dreams were achievable if only you believed enough and worked hard enough. And you strove hard not to forget the rich mannerisms you’d learnt from Cynthia’s home. When no one watched, you practiced drinking tea the sophisticated way. In the privacy of your rooms, you practiced the Queen’s English that you’d spoken to Cynthia, so that you wouldn’t forget. In once upon a time books, you met Cinderella again, and Hansel and Gretel, and little red riding hood, and Robin Hood.
You taught yourself never to forget.
And you read till your eyes bled, then you read some more; because somehow you knew that your way out of this nonentity of a life was through good grades and your intellect. By the time you got out of secondary school, you were so well read you could teach your teachers. You’d read dictionaries, encyclopedias, medical journals, numerous bible translations, and could write passable French and Spanish; skills that meant nothing in the Nigerian economy.
You were brilliant, you were on fire; you remembered what the good life felt like. But you had no way to get there. In fact, you had no way to get a higher education.
You spent the next three years doing odd jobs. You taught at a primary school, worked as a receptionist, sold recharge cards, served as a nanny to your eldest sister’s many children.
Finally and even though you’d vowed against it, you did what a lot of frustrated young girls do. You found yourself a sugar daddy. He was thirty-two years older than you and had a wife and grown children. But he also had money, and even though he was more miserly than he had reason to be, you got enough.
You were his play thing, his well-kept secret, the one who did for him things his wife never did. You got to go to London with him once, then to France where you practiced the halting French you’d taught yourself all those years ago.
But the best prize you got out of it all was that you finally got to go to school. You enrolled for a part time course, so you could be available for him when he called. But you took your studies seriously enough; you were there for every lecture, fretted over every homework, bit your nails after each exam.
He dumped you soon enough for someone even younger and thinner. But you’d learnt, you’d had another taste of how the other side lives.
So you went out and got yourself another sugar daddy. And this time, you were wise enough to start a small laundry business on the side. You have three employees, your mother included. And you are estatic at the smiles she now smiles often, delighted that she no longer lives in a hovel of a home.
You are in your final year of school. You are twenty-eight years old. You know how both sides live and you’d die before you knowingly cross over into poverty again.