by Tina Olayimika
“Do you like it?” He asked, his voice burdened with hope.
A small smile, born of neither cheer nor joy, crept across my lips. I could see the worry etched in the creases of his forehead, his eyes laden with hesitation. I smiled some more, praying it would knead away the tension in the air.
“It’s pretty,” I sighed, hoping to release even the tiniest bit of anxiety that had built up in the smallness of my throat, laboring my every breath. He didn’t believe me. I could tell. I was sorry. He could tell. Avoiding his concerned gaze I followed the sharp click-clack of the agent’s heels pounding the immaculately waxed hardwood floors. The house was beautiful, and I didn’t deserve it. Nor did I deserve the beautiful man who wanted to buy it for me. He wanted me to be his wife. He had asked for my hand in marriage and I obliged. Nothing filled me with greater joy than the thought of being his wife. And nothing filled me with greater fear.
“The kitchen comes with stainless steel appliances,” the agent boasted.
I stopped listening. I didn’t deserve stainless steel appliances. I didn’t deserve the man standing behind me, who smelled so alluringly of cologne and confidence. He was beautiful, inside and out. I was beautiful, out. Inside I was shattered. He placed his sturdy hand on the small of my back, as though he was assuring me that he could see the beauty of my insides, even if I couldn’t. I smiled, further imprisoning the tears that had fought for so long to break free. I looked up at him, his gaze fixed straight ahead as he listened intently to our real-estate agent who was determined to sell us a house, despite the fact that she had now shown us six to no avail. It wasn’t her fault, I was stalling.
We were to be married in a matter of months. We wanted to make sure the house was ready before the wedding. I wanted to make sure that I was ready
before the wedding. This man wanted me to be his wife. He wanted to buy a house with me. And we would live in this house as man and wife, and I would bear his beautiful children. We would probably have a dog, and our kids would sneak him food as we all ate dinner together at our dinner table made of beautifully carved oak. I would ask him how his day was; he would kiss me gently on my forehead and tell me, “Fine.” I would inhale the scent of him, allowing the mesmerizing blend of his cologne and confidence to stoke the embers of my passion. Our kids would giggle. We would send them up to bed, much to their disappointment, and spend the rest of the evening bound in each other’s arms, allowing our souls to pour into one another in ways that our words could not. We would abide in this house. And my secrets would abide in me.
“I’m fine.” I smiled, my voice barely above a whisper. The incline of his eyebrows told me he didn’t believe me, the softness in eyes told me he loved me deeply, the firmness in his voice told me simply, “Ok.”
“These windows are actually double paned for optimal energy efficiency.”
The agent explained, her comments aimed at my husband-to-be. He nodded receptively. I stared at him. He was so beautiful. He wanted me and I wanted him, but there were so many things I couldn’t say to him, so many things he didn’t know. Secrets that were buried deep beneath the debris of pain and regret, masking any remaining fragments of beauty and innocence from my youth.
My youth. This house reminded me of my youth. There were scented candles casting ghostly shadows in the guest bathroom across the hall. The warmth of the candles and its rich chocolaty undertones evoked flashes of the dark brown hues that punctuated the décor of the house that I had once called home. The lux smoothness of the candle channeled thoughts of the wood paneled walls that hugged the basement of my childhood abode, visions of the sultry mahogany swirled serenely in my subconscious. The sweetness of the smell conjured my most beautiful memories of my youth. I had spent much of my childhood roaming and exploring the vast expanses of my neighborhood. Every day something new was to be found. Everyday something new was to be hidden.
I was an explorer. I investigated anything that was willing to submit itself to my mental interrogation. Sneaking into rooms I knew I had no business being in, playing with things that would land me a weeks worth of punishment if ever I were found out. But I was never found out. I had learned to keep secrets and this house was my greatest confidant; its deeply hued walls bearing the burdens my childhood couldn’t bear, its heavy wooden doors locking away memories that I dare not share, its slightly worn carpets absorbing fears that I couldn’t expel.
My childhood was filled with both my fondest and darkest memories. I remember loving the outdoors. I would come home from school and toss my bookbag on the chaise that sat meekly in the corner of our living room. Making a beeline for our back door, I would kick off my shoes and run outside, barefoot, reveling in the gritty feel of the pebbles below my feet. I would breathe deeply,
refreshed and glad to be free from the confines of life.
Our backyard was my playground, my castle, and my sanctuary. Facing a small back road, it was one of the few backyards that weren’t fenced in. Instead, our cement-paved deck was encased by the small, dense forest of trees that lined our property. It was my forest. I would often wander between the trees crafting stories that would never make the acquaintance of a sheet of paper. My forest was my freedom. I could go there, sit and escape. There were no rules in the forest, no parents, no friends, no men: just trees. And squirrels. I loved squirrels. They reminded me of myself: small and quiet, but cunning and quick. I would watch them scurry from tree to tree, gathering whatever they could find. I imagined that they watched me too, discussed me amongst themselves, marveled at me the way I marveled at them. They didn’t I’m sure, but it was a nice thought.
The forest was the only place where I didn’t feel pain. There was no room for pain in the forest, just trees, and squirrels and me. I didn’t bother to think about my pain in the forest. I didn’t want to burden the squirrels, they were too busy and there was so much for them to do. So I never told them. I just watched them and smiled, drowning my pains in those few moments of stolen freedom. It was fun to be carefree, without the scars of secrets and the burden of lies. I would stay out in the forest for as long as time would allow, seated comfortably in the warmth of the lush soil, begging the sun to stay out for just a bit longer. Soon enough my mother would step out onto the patio, cooking utensil in hand, and call my name. I would not answer. She didn’t like this game very much, although we played it everyday. She would yell my name yet again, only this time with a tone that reminded my bottom of the many times I had not listened to her call. Slowly, I would stand to my feet and, taking the longest route possible, emerge from the saccharine solitude of my forest.
“Have you done your homework?” she would ask, as I wiped my dirt caked feet on the welcome mat.
“Yes,” I always responded, as thoughts of the unfinished worksheets that sat in my bookbag nudged at my heart.
“Are you hungry?” She would inquire.
“No.” I would say as I accepted the bowl of food she placed before me.
“How was school?”
“Good.” I never wanted to say too much. I was always mindful of my words.
“Is everything ok?”
“Mhmm.” I would mumble between bites of food. I never understood that last question. What constitutes everything? What constitutes ok? Was it ok that “everything” is just “ok?” I never bothered to ask those questions. I simply stored them in the little box in my heart where I had stored everything I couldn’t bare to say or ask. They were all in that box, struggling to set themselves free, but I was a stern guard and not one of them would escape on my watch. Nine years of age and I already had more secrets than I had days on earth.
Times like this, when my mother and I were alone together, I would wonder why it couldn’t be just us. She was so beautiful to me. She was strong and sturdy in stature, yet so feminine. Her hair, jet black and shiny, hung freely down her back; her smile, big and inviting, was always plastered across her face, showcasing the small gap that separated her two front teeth. People always said that we looked just alike. I used to wonder if that was why he loved me so much.
After I ate, my mother and I would settle on the small couch in our living room and watch TV, the small clock on the wall ticking away softly in the background. Sometimes we would talk. Oftentimes we wouldn’t. When she wasn’t looking I would stare at her. Her smooth skin, the color of dark coffee with just a bit of milk, always looked so pretty awash in the glow of the television. I would wonder if she knew. I figured she did. She had to know. Sometimes it made me
hate her. I would feel rivers of lava roaring through my gut sending my mind into a dizzied rage. Other times, it made me love her, desperately and passionately. She was afraid, just like I was. I wanted to tell her that it was ok, and that I wasn’t mad, just scared. Sometimes I wanted to sit really close to her, and nestle under her arm like a baby cub does to its mother, but I was afraid she would smell him on me. So we always sat on opposite ends of the couch, though it felt like opposite ends of the Earth.
Eventually the clock would strike nine and my mother would shoo me off to bed. I would beg for just a few more minutes, only for her to reply, “There’s school in the morning. Now, go.”
“Ok,” I would reply, as I headed to the kitchen for a drink of anything. I would hear her chuckle, which always made me smile. I loved when my mother laughed, probably because she didn’t do it often, but I relished the moments when she did. She would call my name again.
“Bed. Now.” She would say. She thought I was stalling. She was right. I dreaded the walk to my room. The hallway always seemed so hollow, the shiny hardwood floor felt so cold under my feet, not like the warmth of the sun-baked dirt in my forest. I would climb into bed, cringing at the little specks of red that dotted my once pristine sheets. I hate this place, I would think to myself; but it wasn’t the place that I hated, it was the pain.
Eventually sleep would come. Sometimes I would sleep through the night and I loved those nights. Some nights I would awaken, beads of sweat already accumulating on the surface of my body. He was tugging at my pajamas, trying his hardest to be gentle, and silent. I never fought, I didn’t know how. “I love you,” he would reassure me. I remained silent. I wasn’t sure if he loved me, but he was the only father I had ever known so I believed him. He removed his belt and allowed his slacks to drop quietly to cold hardwood floor. I gripped my sheets with what little strength my nine-year-old body possessed and took in as much air as possible, hoping it would be quick today. I knew it was time to be a woman, again. I didn’t like being a woman. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I didn’t, but I always closed my eyes.
“Is she okay?” The real estate agent asked.
I was shaking. “I’m fine,” I whispered. No one believed me.
“How about I give y’all a few minutes alone?” She smiled uncomfortably. She grabbed a folder and walked off into an undisclosed location.
We didn’t speak. He took me by my trembling hands and held me. I was still scared. 30 years of age and I was still the scared nine year old girl who lay in her bedroom every night and cried. It was finally time to be a woman, and I didn’t know how.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Tina Olayimika is graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park where she discovered her interest in issues surrounding race, class, power and privilege. She continues to pursue her passion in social justice through her work with youth and community organizing.