Recovering from addiction was like being retrieved after a great fall, and then placed on the edge of the cliff. It was a precarious place to sit, and Durotimi felt like all it would take was one indiscretionary shot of vodka, one careless sip of wine, and she would be back to waking up in strange mens’ apartments, going to work with a pounding headache, and slipping into the women’s restroom to brush her teeth after surreptitious gulps from her travel mug. No, she wouldn’t go there. Her healing would be long-lasting this time. She was doing everything her therapist said she should; addressing the past head on. If you don’t want to think about it, Becca had said, that’s exactly what you should be thinking about. That’s exactly what is causing your plunging.
Becca was right, of course. She was being haunted by ghosts from the past, and that was exactly how she got here, how she became this volatile, reckless twenty-five-year-old. But there was still time to do the right thing. Isn’t that what she had learned so many years ago? After she realized she was responsible for the shattered English candle that had once been encased in clear glass, she had knocked on her mother’s door (she never knocked), knelt on the cool, tiled floor and said, tearfully, “I was the one that broke the candle”. Was it painful, yes. Did it hurt? Yes. But even as her mothers’ arm loomed over her head, despite the familiar fury that contorted her features, it had felt like she was exhaling for the first time in months.
And it’s the thought of that, what exhaling would feel like after all these years, that emboldens her, that tugs her forward as she stares out of the aircraft that will soon land in Accra, where all those many years ago, she’d buried a truth so deep inside herself that it had started to sink her.
The city begins to take shape beneath the aircraft, and she cannot believe how many years have passed. She had seen the aerial views of other cities: Amsterdam, London, New Delhi where her parents now lived. But Accra, the city she had once called home, indeed the only city she had ever called home, was a place she avoided with careful intention. No conferences here, no visits to old friends, no collaborations with people doing groundbreaking work, nothing that would even remotely bring her back to this point. It wasn’t worth it to come this close to what she had done, what she had failed to do.
Her heart pounds faster even as the city comes into clear view, and faster still as the tires hit the ground, as the plane taxies to a halt. When the passengers break into the traditional applause, she drifts out of her thoughts, momentarily, to find that her palms are gripping the sides of her seat. Briefly, she considers staying in the aircraft, not leaving the airport. Booking the next flight out of Ghana. Yet she, as though compelled by some greater force, goes through the motions, putting one foot in front of the other, waiting, desperate for that exhale.
Accra is nothing like she remembers it, but she had been expecting that. There were new buildings and malls where there used to be nothing, wider streets, more intense traffic, a level of energy in the air that she did not remember from when her family lived here a decade ago. Her Uber driver, a man about her age with a forgettable face and an easy smile, probes her with questions.
“How long will you be in town for?”
His eyes meet hers in the mirror. She realizes he must be curious because she’s only brought one small overnight bag, when normally, people who are coming to Ghana from overseas must haul huge suitcases, bringing cheap clothing and gifts for all their family members. Her head is pounding, she takes just long enough to respond that he should know she wasn’t interested in making small talk.
“One week!” she calls out, louder than she absolutely needs to, then peers intently outside of the window, where she sees young children running to wash car windshields, hoping to be paid for their efforts. How is that still a thing? She thinks, a new weight resting on her chest, a temporary relief, actually from the familiar knot. This she can wrestle with in peace, African countries and their intractable challenges. Child streetism, the complexities of poverty and the impossible choices it forces people to make. When a person must decide between food on the table and–
“One week?!” He responds incredulously, in the same foreign accent he has feigned since she got into the vehicle. “How will you see all of Ghana in one week?”
This time she doesn’t bother to grace him with a response. Ghana, of course is not novel terrain to her, and this is not a vacation. She is staying in a hotel opposite the home she had lived in with her family. A home that was now presumably occupied by another family, but still standing, as the street view from Google showed her weeks ago. After another half hour of driving, some of the tension she felt, she realized is easing up. She has missed the scent of the ubiquitous tree-shaped US flag air freshener hanging from the Uber’s mirror. She likes how essential the car AC feels, how it’s ever so softly stirring the hair on her arms. She notes the surroundings, the huge signposts, for MTN, Coca-Cola, a bank, many brands she does not recognize. She notices a woman roasting corn by the street and almost squeals. It feels, she notes with caution and a little bit of surprise, good to be here again.
She turns to her Uber driver with the easy smile, hoping he would overlook her earlier disregard.
“So, what can I see in one week?”
He is only too happy to engage.
When nearly an hour later, they arrive at her hotel, they exchange phone numbers. His biceps strain, but barely against his shirt sleeve as he helps her, needlessly, with her small travel bag.
Someone more recently familiar with the local context, she decides, can always come in handy.
Without the distraction of Frank the Uber driver and his easy chitchat, she has time to think in her small hotel bedroom, and time for the knot in her stomach to tighten again. Across the street is the house she grew up in, the house where ten years ago now, a man had barged in through the gate as she sat on the balcony completing the math homework Mary was forcing her to do.
She remembers that day like it was yesterday. The film of dust on the plastic table she was working from, the pot of sunflowers to her right. The way the dogs barked when he barged in. He said his name was Mr. Kwesi and he was Mary’s husband. She had remembered at the time that Mary did have a husband that worked out of town. This freed up Mary’s time so she could spend more hours cleaning up their home, hand washing, sun drying and ironing clothes in one day, before late at night, slipping away into the darkness, heading into her own world and what Durotimi saw as its mysteries.
“Hi Mr. Kwesi!” She had said cheerily to the middle aged man, happy to have a distraction. Why does he look so angry? She remembers thinking and trying not to laugh.
“Where is Mary?!” He had asked, his muscles bulging from his chest. She noticed that his eyes were red. She smiled and scratched her cheek.
“She’s not here right now.” Of course, she knew exactly where Mary was–that she had gone to a nearby store to buy tomatoes– but she was happy to play with this angry man, to make him angrier, to see exactly what he would throw if he didn’t get what he wanted. She wasn’t scared of him at all. She was in her own house and she was entertained.
“She went somewhere,” she said slowly, folding then unfolding her arms.
“Alone with the driver?!” he followed.
Err okay, she had thought at the time, her teenage mind beginning to piece together its own narrative.
Why did she say yes? She would ponder over this for years afterward, but right then she loved that she didn’t have to think about algebra, that this man looked like he would believe anything she said and maybe even burn the house down, who knows? It was all very funny.
“The driver” his eyes narrowed, and she grew more excited. She also remembers thinking, at some point during the interaction: why is Mary married to this ugly man?
“Are they close?”
This part was kind of true, she often found them sharing food, talking in a language she didn’t understand.
“How close are they?!”
He was yelling, insistent, his voice reverberating. She shrugged, spoke very slowly and pointedly, as if her next words were the most casual in the world.
“She stays in his room a lot”. That was all. That was all she said. Yet that was the last time she saw Mr. Kwesi, and that day was the last day she saw Mary.
What she would hear next from her mother is that Mr. Kwesi had forbade Mary from working with them. It couldn’t be because… she would think at the time, pacing her large bedroom, which she was struggling to keep tidy without Mary’s help. Could it be because?
Next, her mother announced that, could Durotimi believe it, after all that Mary had endured with him, Mr. Kwesi had left her and found a new wife. Could it? Could it be because? She would think, as her eyes drifted mindlessly on the pages of the Twilight book she was reading, her mind grappling instead with a more urgent reality.
Next, Mary would still not come back to work for them, returning instead to her village. She slowly but surely started to close the Mary chapter, only thinking about her and the lie when their new help, Tina, left Durotimi’s clothes ironed but unfolded in a heap at the foot of her bed.
Err okay, she would think as she pushed the clothes off her bed with her foot, Mary would never. And then suddenly, the thoughts would come rushing back, until they faded away again.
One evening, about six months later she jumped out of the Toyota, and jogged into the house, only too ready to peel off the school uniform that by that time of day always smelled like the same unpleasant, yet reassuring mix of deodorant and sweat. From the kitchen, her mother announced to Durotimi that she had just learned that Mary had been injured at her family’s farm the week before and had been rushed to the hospital, where she died. “If she’d stayed here, in Accra” her mother declared, her index finger pointed toward the ground with its familiar conviction, trembling, this time, just slightly “she would still be with us. That man…he will never have peace for what he has caused.”
The mildly unsettling pulse, sometimes stronger than other times, that she had carried since she learned Mr. Kwesi left Mary, the ‘could it? Could it be because?’ was now damning, an insistent thrum of yes and yes and yes, it is absolutely because. There would never be time to undo the chain of events Durotimi believed she had set in motion. All it had taken was six months. She slept in her school uniform that night and the next morning, woke up with a fever. Her mother would have never believed a sudden illness, so she went to school anyway, her head pounding in every class. It was what she believed she deserved.
In the years that followed, Durotimi tried to forget everything that happened. But on several mornings, she would wake up with the singular thought on her mind: if you hadn’t lied, Mary would be alive.
The cycle became predictable.
No, Durotimi would resolve on one day, she was not responsible. And then on the next one, she would march towards the stage to receive her undergraduate diploma, and find herself wondering, without warning “what could Mary have become?” She would labor over the thought for days at a time, and then slowly tuck it away again, but never rid herself of it. It was a taut and insistent impression, nearly a decade old now, relegated to the quiet places of herself.
So one day, finally, she had found their old driver on Facebook. It took months and a small incentive of $200 but he found Mr. Kwesi’s number for her. And eventually, she had WhatsApped Mr. Kwesi, and come all the way across the world to meet him. Still, she wants to make this quick.
There is a glass of lukewarm water on the table but even if Durotimi isn’t too nervous, she would never trust it enough to drink it. The restaurant is nondescript, the type where tables are shrouded with covers made of rubber, covers that like this one, usually have photos of beer. Her eyes are running over the text underneath the photo of Star beer but she barely registers it. Be a Star, it reads.
She is wearing a white t-shirt and denim shorts, sitting by the standing fan so she can remember to breathe, stretching her watch and letting it snap back, again and again, on her skin. Where would she begin?
When he finally arrives, a half hour past the agreed time, she realizes it’s not that long a story. After the flurry of predictably awkward greetings with the man who looks nothing like she remembers, she begins with two words.
Soon, she is done recalling the day in every excruciating detail she remembers, confessing her guilt with her eyes pointed away from him, sweat running down her face, her hands damp. She looks at him. His brows are furrowed, his fists, she can tell are clenched underneath the table. He takes a moment to respond. And then he opens his mouth to speak, leaning closer to her.
“You took my wife from me.”
Durotimi doesn’t know what she had been expecting but it was not this.
When she had imagined this day, she had imagined that he would tell her that he was surprised, even sad, but that her guilt was unfounded. He would extend an olive branch, maybe they would even discuss memories of Mary. He would show her photos of his children with his new wife. None of that. Instead, he raises his voice.
“You took my wife from me!”
He is pounding his fists on the table now, and suddenly, she does recognize the man who barged in all those years ago, his red eyes, his deeply furrowed brows. At first she is stunned, and then all of a sudden it feels like a small window has opened within her. There is a sense of relief. The wind comes in, gently. There is a dawning serenity perceptible about her. At first she doesn’t trust it and then she leans into it. She doesn’t speak. This seems to anger him.
“You took my wife from me!”
She looks through the small, newly open window within herself, and she sees it clearly now. For the first time in over 10 years.
A 13 year old girl is doing Math homework in the stillness of an afternoon. An adult man with unbridled anger, comes barging into her home. He comes to her with his fists clenched, ready to believe the worst about his own wife. Even if the worst was coming out of the mouth of a girl who was barely a teenager. Mary stays in the drivers room a lot, Durotimi had said. Doing what, she hadn’t. Why didn’t he ask? Had he even given Mary a chance to defend herself?
What a small man, she thinks, what a small, ugly man.
There is a satisfied smile on her face. He is still enraged.
“You took my wife from me!” he slams his fist against the table again. Nobody in the restaurant seems concerned about this, only curious.
Err okay, she thinks wryly. What has he gotten in the past, she wonders by pounding his fists on the table? And what does he think he can get now?
She is completely unmoved by his rage. At first he looks confused, then he looks at her with a touch of fear, this woman with a trace of an unplaceable accent, looking serenely at him as he explodes.
“You, not me, brought the driver up that day” she says calmly. “You came already angry,” she continues.
She is peering through that window within herself, holding her face to the breeze from it, determined never to shift her gaze again.
“I was 13!”
She starts to laugh now, and then gets up, saunters past the other guests pretending now to focus intently on their meals. She rejoins Frank the Uber driver in his well-kept car in the parking lot, this time sitting in the front seat.
She is in a really good mood. In fact, she has never felt better. She is seeing things through new eyes. All this time she had thought she was somehow beholden to Mr. Kwesi, when in fact, all she had needed was to tell the truth, to bring it out of her body. Mr. Kwesi’s anger, his forgiveness or not, had turned out to be completely irrelevant. By blaming her, by borderline attacking her in that restaurant, he revealed who he truly was, who he had always been and would always be.
She is home, she thinks with a little bit of wonder, in this city she has run away from for years. She allows herself to soak it in, to enjoy it.
Frank the Uber driver is sort of funny. Every time he makes a joke, she brushes his arm and chuckles softly. They are headed to a hotel restaurant to have lunch together.
Soon, they are in the restaurant. She shows off the bracelets she bought in traffic to Frank the Uber driver, who exclaims approvingly.
She orders a bottle of Star. One bottle would not hurt. Besides, she thinks, where else in the world would she get Star? When the drink arrives, she swishes it around her mouth before swallowing. Her gaze is fixed on the small window. The air is rushing in.
Tiwaladeoluwa Adekunle grew up in Ibadan, Nigeria and Accra, Ghana. She is a writer and health communication doctoral student at Purdue University. Her creative writing is published in Pittsburgh Poetry Journal, Breakwater Review, and Oakland Review. You can find her on Instagram @tiwalade.a.
Related country: Ghana