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Lesley Nneka Arimah | from:

Glory

Photo: Nicholas Bui

When Glory’s parents christened her Glorybetogod Ngozi Akunyili, they did not foresee Facebook’s “real name” policy, nor the weeks she would spend populating forms and submitting copies of her bills and driver’s license and the certificate that documented her birth on September 9, 1986, a rainy Tuesday, at 6:45 p.m., after six hours of labor and six years of barrenness. Pinning on her every hope they had yet to realize, her parents imagined the type of life well-situated Igbos imagined for their children. She would be a smart girl with the best schooling. She would attend church regularly and never stray from the Word. (Amen!) She would learn to cook like her        grandmother, her father added, to which her mother countered, why not like her mother, and Glorybetogod’s father hemmed and hawed till his wife said maybe he should go and eat at his mother’s house. But back to Glorybetogod, whom everyone called Glory except for her grandfather, who called her “that girl” the first time he saw her.

“That girl has something rotten in her, her chi is not well.”

Husband pulled wife out of the room to prevent a brawl (“I don’t care how old that drunk is, I will fix his mouth today”) and begged his father to accept his firstborn grandchild. He didn’t see, as the grandfather did, the caul of misfortune covering Glory’s face that would affect every decision she made, causing her to err on the side of wrong, time and time again. When Glory was five she decided, after much consideration, to stick her finger into the maw of a sleeping dog. At seven, shortly after her family relocated to the US, Glory thought it a good idea to walk home when her mother was five minutes late picking her up from school, a choice that saw her lost and sobbing in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot before night fell. She did a lot of things out of spite, the source of which she couldn’t identify—as if she’d been born resenting the world.

That’s how, much to her parents’ embarrassment, their Glory came to be nearing thirty, chronically single, and working at a call center in downtown Minneapolis. She fielded calls from disgruntled home- owners on the brink of foreclosure, reading from a script that was intricate and logical and written by people who had never before spoken on the phone to a human being. In all their calculations about her future, Glory’s parents had never imagined that on April 16, 2013, after receiving yet another e-mail denying her request to restore her Facebook page (the rep refused to believe any parent would actually name their child Glorybetogod), their  daughter  would  be the sort of person for whom this flake of misfortune set rolling an avalanche of misery that quickly led to her contemplating taking her own life.

She called her mother, hoping to be talked out of it, but got her voice mail and then a text saying, What is it now? (Glory knew better than to respond.) A call to her father would yield an even cooler response, and so she spent the evening on the edge of her bed, neck tense as a fist, contemplating how a bottle of Moscato would pair with thirty gelcap sleeping pills. The note she wrote read, I was born under an unlucky star and my destiny has caught up with me. I’m sorry, Mummy and Daddy, that I didn’t complete law school and become the person you’d hoped. But it was also your fault for putting so much pressure on me. Good-bye.

All of this was true, and not. Her parents did put pressure on her, but it was the sort of hopeful pressure that might have encouraged a better person. And she was unlucky, yes, but it was less fate and more her propensity for arguing with professors and storming out of classrooms never to return that saw her almost flunk out of college. She eventually graduated, with an embarrassing GPA. Then came law school, to which she gained entrance through a favor of a friend of a friend of her father’s, thinking that her argumentative tendencies could be put to good use. But she’d managed to screw that up, too, choosing naps instead of class and happy hours instead of studying, unable to do right no matter how small the choice. These foolish little choices incremented into probation, then a polite request to leave, followed by an impolite request to leave after she’d staged a protest in the dean’s office.

Glory fell asleep after a glass and a half of wine and woke to find the pills a melted mass in her fist. In the morning light, her melodramatic note embarrassed her and she tore it up and flushed it down the toilet. At work, avoiding the glare of her supervisor and the finger he pointed at the clock, she switched on her headphones to receive the first call: Mrs. Dumfries. Her husband had died and she had no clue where any paperwork was. Could Glory help her keep her house? Glory read from her script, avoiding the no they were never allowed to utter. Then Glen, who was actually Greg, who was also Peter, who called every day at least four or five times and tried to trick the customer service reps into promises they couldn’t keep. Little did he know that even if Glory promised him his childhood home complete with all the antiques that had gone missing after the foreclosure, she would only be fired and he would still be stuck in the same two-bedroom apartment with his kids. All day the calls came in and Glory had to say no without saying no and the linguistic acrobatics required to evade this simple answer wore away her nerves.

At lunch, she ate one of the burritos that came three-for-a-dollar at the discount grocery store and a nice-looking sandwich that belonged to one of her coworkers, and checked her e-mail again. Then she walked by the lobby of the advertising agency that dominated the top two floors of the building. To the right of the glass lobby doors were mounted the logos of the companies the firm had branded. She paused and took a photo of herself in front of the logo of the jewelry megachain. If her Facebook page was ever restored, she would post the picture, with the caption “Worked on my favorite account today. The best part is the free samples!”

Then her cousin in Port Harcourt would like her post, and another friend would confess her envy, and others still would say how (OMG!) she was sooo lucky. And for a moment she would live the sort of life  her parents had imagined for her those many, many years ago.

After her lunch break, she sank back into her seat and was about to switch her headset on when he walked in. Glory knew he was Nigerian right away by his gait. And when he spoke, a friendly greeting as he shook her supervisor’s hand, her guess was confirmed. He wore a suit, slightly ill fitting, but his shoulders made up for it. He joined a group of trainees across the room.

He had an air of competence she found irritating, reading from the script as though he had it memorized, managing to make it sound compassionate and genuine. At one point he noticed her staring, and every time she looked at him after that he was looking at her, too.

She culled bits and pieces of him over the rest of the day, eavesdropped from impressed supervisors who sang his praises. He was getting an MBA at the U. He’d grown up in Nigeria but visited his uncle in Atlanta every summer. After his MBA he was going to attend law school. His parents were both doctors.

Glory knew what he was doing, because she did the same: sharing too many details of her life with these strangers, signaling why she didn’t belong here earning $13.50 an hour. She was better than “customer service representative”—everyone should know that this title was only temporary. Except in his case, it was all true.

He smiled at her when she was leaving, a smile so sure of reciprocation that Glory wanted to flip him off. But the home training that lingered caused her to avert her eyes instead and hurry to catch the bus.

Her phone dinged. A text from her mother. Why did you call me, do you need money again? No, she wanted to respond, I’m doing fine, but she didn’t. After a week, her mother might send $500 and say this was the last time and she’d better not tell her father. Glory would use the money to complete her rent or buy new shoes or maybe squirrel it away to be nibbled bit by bit— candy here, takeout there—till it disappeared. Then, when her mother couldn’t restrain herself anymore, Glory would receive a stern, long-winded lecture via e-mail, about how she wouldn’t have to worry about such things if she were married, and why didn’t she let her father introduce her to some of the young men at his work? And Glory would delete it, and cry, and retrace all the missteps that had led her to this particular place. She knew her birth story and what her grandfather had said, but it never made a difference when the time came to make the right choice. She was always drawn to the wrong one, like a dog curious to taste its own vomit.

 

The next day, Glory arrived at work to see the man sitting in the empty spot next to hers.

“Good morning.” “Hi.”

“My name is Thomas. They told me you are also from Nigeria? You don’t sound it.”

“I’ve been here since I was six, I hope you don’t think I should have kept my accent that long.”

He flinched at her rudeness but pressed on.

“I don’t know many Nigerians here, maybe you can introduce me?”

Glory considered the handful of women she kept in touch with who would have loved to be introduced to this guy, still green and fresh. But they saw little of her real life, thinking Glory to be an ad exec with a fabulous lifestyle, and any introductions would jeopardize that.

“Sorry, I don’t really know anyone either. You should try talking to someone with real friends.”

He laughed, thinking she was joking, and his misunderstanding loosened her tongue. It was nice to talk to someone new who had no expectations of her.

“So, why are you slumming it here with the rest of us? Shouldn’t you be interning somewhere fabulous?” “This is my internship. I actually work in corporate but thought I should get a better understanding of what happens in the trenches.”

“Wait, you’re here voluntarily? Are you crazy?”

He laughed again. “No, it’s just . . . you wouldn’t understand.”

“I’m not stupid,” Glory said. “So fuck you.” Then she switched on her headset, ignoring his “Whoa, where did that come from?,” and turned her dial to the busiest queue. The calls came in one after then other, leaving Thomas little chance to apologize if he wanted to.

An hour in, he pressed a note into Glory’s palm.

I’m sorry, it read. Can I treat you to lunch?

Her pride said no, but her stomach, last filled with the sandwich she’d stolen yesterday afternoon, begged a yes.

She snatched up his pen. I guess.

 

Mom, I’m seeing someone. Glory typed and deleted that sentence over and over, never sending it. Her mother would call for sure, and then she’d dissect every description of Thomas till he was flayed to her satisfaction. Her father would ask to hear the “young man’s intentions.” The cloying quality of their attention would ruin it.

Thomas would have delighted them. He went to church every Sunday—though he’d learned to stop inviting her—and he had the bright sort of future that was every parent’s dream. He prayed over his meals, and before he went to bed, and when he woke up. He prayed for her. Glory despised him. She hated the sheen of accomplishment he wore, so dulled on her. She hated his frugal management of money. She hated that when she’d pressed him for sex he’d demurred, saying that they should wait till they were more serious.

Glory couldn’t get enough of him. She loved that he watched Cartoon Network with the glee of a teenager, loved that he could move through a crowd of strangers and emerge on the other side with friends. He didn’t seem to mind her coarseness, or how her bad luck had deepened her bitterness so that she wished even the best of people ill. He didn’t seem to mind how joy had become a finite meal she begrudged seeing anyone but herself consume. She wanted to ask him what he saw in her but was afraid his answer would be qualities she knew to be illusions. A carefree attitude that was simply carelessness. Bluntness mistaken for honesty when she was just mean.

They talked of Nigeria often, or at least he did, telling her about growing up in Onitsha and how he wanted to move back someday. He said we and us like it was understood she’d go back with him, and she began to savor a future she’d never imagined for herself.

She’d been to Nigeria many times, in fact, but she kept that from him, enjoying, then loathing, then enjoying how excited he was to explain the country to her. He didn’t know that what little money she could scrape together was spent on a plane ticket to Nigeria every thirteen months, or that over the past few years, she had arrived the day after her grandmother’s death, then the day after her great-aunt’s death, and then her uncle’s, so that her grandfather asked her to let him know when she booked her ticket so that he could prepare to die. Thomas still didn’t know she was unlucky.

She kept it secret to dissuade any probing, unaware that people like Thomas were never suspicious, as trusting of the world’s goodness as children born to wealth. When she visited her grandfather, they’d sit together in his room watching TV, Glory getting up only to fetch them food or drink. Nobody knew why she made the trips as often as she did, or why she eschewed the bustle of Lagos for her grandfather’s sleepy village. She couldn’t explain that her grandfather knew her, saw her for what she was—a black hole that compressed and eliminated fortune and joy—and still opened his home to her, gave her a room and a bed, the mattress so old the underside bore stains from when her mother’s water broke.

Near the end of her last stay, their conversation had migrated to her fate.

“There is only disaster in your future if you do not please the gods,” he’d said.

The older she got, the more she felt the truth of it: the deep inhale her life had been so far, in preparation for an explosive exhale that would flatten her.

“Papa, you know I don’t have it in me to win anyone’s favor, let alone the gods’.”

They were both dressed in shorts and singlets, the voltage of the generator too low to carry anything that cooled. Glory sat on the floor, shifting every half hour to savor the chill of cooler tiles. Her grandfather lounged on the bed. When he began one of his fables, she closed her eyes.

“A porcupine and a tortoise came to a crossroads, where a spirit appeared before them. ‘Carry me to the heart of the river and let me drink,’ the spirit said. Neither wanted to be saddled with the spirit, but they could not deny it without good reason.

“‘I am slow,’ said the tortoise, ‘it will take us many years to reach the river.’

“‘I am prickly,’ said the porcupine, ‘the journey will be too painful.’

“The spirit raged. ‘If you don’t get me to the heart of the river by nightfall and give me a cup to drink, I will extinguish every creature of your kind.’                     

“The tortoise and the porcupine conferred. ‘What if you carry me,’ said the tortoise, ‘while I carry the spirit? We will surely make it by nightfall.’

“‘I have a better idea,’ said the porcupine. ‘These are no ordinary quills on my back. They are magic quills capable of granting any wish. The only condition is that you must close your eyes and open them only after your wish is granted.’

“The tortoise and the spirit each plucked a quill, eager for desires out of reach, and closed their eyes. That’s when the porcupine snatched the quill from the tortoise and jammed it into the flesh of his throat. He filled the spirit’s hands with the tortoise’s blood, which it drank, thinking the gurgling it heard to be from the river. But spirits know the taste of blood. It lashed out at the porcupine, only to find that it could move no faster than a tortoise. The porcupine continued on his way.”

Her grandfather’s long pause signaled the end. “Are you hearing me?”

“Yes, but what does it mean?”

“If you can’t please the gods, trick them.”

 

Glory’s time with her grandfather had eased pressure building in her, but the relief had been short-lived. A stream of catastrophes greeted her stateside: Keys left on the plane. A car accident, her foot slipping on the pedal made smooth by the car insurance check she’d forgotten to mail. A job lost for lack of transportation, which after many fruitless applications had landed her in the petri dish of the call center where she’d met Thomas.

Thomas, on the other hand, was a lucky man. He always seemed to find money lying about the street, although never so large an amount as to induce alarm or guilt. He always got what he wanted, always, and attributed it to ingenuity and perseverance, unaware of the halo of good fortune resting on his head. When Glory had him write a new request to Facebook, her page was restored in a day. He would have been appalled to know she sometimes followed him when they parted ways after work, watching with fascination as he drew amity from everyone he encountered.

Some of his luck did rub off on her and she found herself receiving invitations to long-standing events she hadn’t even known existed. Igbo Women’s Fellowship of the Midwest. Daughters of Biafra, Minnesota chapter. Party, Party, a monthly event rotated among different homes. Sometimes, as she watched Thomas charm a crowd with little effort, she wondered how it was that one person could be so blessed and another not. They’d been born in the same state to parents of similar means and faith. Even accounting for the privileges of his maleness, it seemed to Glory that they should have been in the same place. She began to think of his luck as something that had been taken from her and viewed their relationship as a way to even her odds.

 

At last they were serious enough for Thomas, and the sex was not mediocre exactly, but just good, not the mind-blowing experience she’d expected it to be. But Thomas was moved and thanked her for trusting him, and she said, “You’re welcome,” in that cutesy, girlish way she knew he would like, even though what she really wanted was for him to stop being such a gentleman and fuck her silly.

And the more he said us and we, the less quickly she deleted that Mom, I’m seeing someone text. One day, instead of sending it, she posted a picture of her and Thomas on her Facebook wall, setting off a sequence that involved her Port Harcourt cousin calling another cousin who called another and so on and so forth, until the news reached her mother, who called her. It took thirty-seven minutes.

Glory waited till just before the call went to voice mail to pick up.

“Hello?”

“Who is he? Praise God! What is his name?” “Thomas Okongwu,” and at Okongwu her mother started praising God again. Glory couldn’t help but laugh and felt a blush of gratitude. It had been years since any news she’d delivered over the phone had given her mother cause for joy. She told her about Thomas and his ambitions, getting more animated the more excited her mother became. She ignored the undercurrent of disbelief on the other end of the line, as if her mother couldn’t quite believe her daughter had gotten something right.

After that, it was like everything she did was right. Her job, long pilloried, was now a good thing. The fact that she had no career, her father wrote, meant that she could fully concentrate on her children when they came along. Her ineptitude at managing money no longer mattered. You see, he continued, she’d picked the perfect man to make up for her weaknesses. Kind where she was not, frugal where she was not. Successful.

Glory stared at her father’s e-mail, meant to comfort but instead bringing to mind the wine and pills and what they could do to a body. She moved the message to a folder she’d long ago titled “EVIDENCE”— documents gathered to make her case if she chose never to speak to her father again.

When Thomas asked her if she’d like to meet his mother, Glory knew the right answer and gave it. But she panicked at the prospect of having to impress this woman. Her parents had been easy. Thomas was impressive. She was not.

“Why do you want me to meet her?” she asked. She knew the question was a bit coy, but she wanted some reassurance to hold on to.

Thomas shrugged. “She asked to meet you.”

“So you didn’t ask her if she wanted to meet me?”

After a patient rolling of eyes, Thomas gripped her shoulders and shook her with gentle exasperation.

“You’re always doing this. Of course I want you to meet her and of course she wants to meet you. You’re all she ever talks about now. Look.” He dialed his cell phone. Glory heard a woman laugh on the other end of the line and say something that made Thomas laugh too. Then he said, “Hey, Mum, she’s right here. I’ll let you talk, but don’t go scaring her off.” The warm phone was pressed to her ear, and a voice just shy of being too deep for a woman’s greeted her.

Glory tried to say all the right things about herself and her family, which meant not saying much about herself at all. She wanted this woman to like her, and even beyond that, to admire her, something she wasn’t sure she could achieve without lies. On Facebook, she’d pretended to quit her job at the ad firm—a “sad day indeed,” an old college friend had written on her wall, making Glory suspect he knew the truth. (She unfriended him right away.) But Thomas’s mother could not be so easily dismissed. Glory trotted out her parents’ accomplishments—engineer mother, medical-supply-business-owner father—to shore up her pedigree. Then she mentioned more recent social interests of hers, like the Igbo women’s group, leaving out Thomas’s hand in that. All the while her inner voice wondered what the hell she was doing. Tricking the gods, she replied.

 

The day Thomas’s mother flew in, Glory cooked for hours at his apartment. She’d solicited recipes from her mother, who took much joy in walking her through every step over the phone. By the time Thomas left for the airport, his apartment was as fragrant as a buka, with as large a variety of dishes awaiting eager bellies.

His mother was tall and Glory felt like a child next to her. His mother was also warm, and she folded Glory into a perfumed, bosomy hug.

“Welcome, ma,” Glory said, then wanted to kick herself for sounding so deferential.

“My dear, no need to be so formal, I feel like I’ve known you for years, the way my son goes on and on. It’s me who should be welcoming you into the family.”

She complimented each dish, tasting a bit of one after the other and nodding before filling her plate. It was a test, and Glory was gratified to see that she had passed.

Thomas squeezed her leg under the table, a reassuring pressure that said, See? Nothing to worry about. But what did a person like him know about worry? When his mother questioned her about her work, it was clear she assumed Glory worked in corporate with Thomas, and neither of them dissuaded her. Yet it rankled Glory, who couldn’t decide whether Thomas had stretched the truth into a more presentable form or hadn’t realized what his mother would assume.

Thomas used the pause that followed to excuse himself on an errand. Glory, knowing there was no such errand, gripped his hand tight, pleading. Thomas pried his hand away while his mother busied herself adjusting her coffee to her liking.

He leaned over and whispered, “Just be you. She likes you already, relax.”

Thomas pecked Glory on her nervous, trembling mouth and kissed his mother on the cheek. As soon as the door closed behind him, the older woman spoke.

“Well, it’s just us girls now, what should we chat about?” She smiled an invitation at Glory, who took a long sip of water to mask her anxiety. When she didn’t say anything, Thomas’s mother took the lead.

“So you two are supervising a group of three hundred? You should have no problem with a family then. Thomas says they are like a bunch of unruly children.” She laughed.

Glory knew she should laugh, too, make light of the notes posted around the call center asking people not to steal food. But her contrary nature stirred.

“Actually, I am one of those unruly children. I work the floor.”

“Oh.” Then seamlessly, “Well, it’s no matter at this point, is it. I’m so happy that you will soon leave the US to come and stay with me in Nigeria. It’s so important to bring up the children there. Thomas’s father and I are delighted that you both agree.”

This was something Glory and Thomas had never discussed. If he’d been there, he would have squeezed her leg, a silent Please don’t argue with my mother. Glory felt it then, that peculiar knot at the back of her neck that tensed whenever she came to a crossroads. The prospect of disappointing Thomas so boldly was the only thing that stayed her tongue. Unfortunately, that reticence extended to the rest of their exchange.

“So, no siblings.” “No.”

“You didn’t enjoy that, I’m sure. Kids need companions, don’t you think?”

“I guess.”

Every minute that passed without Thomas by her side, Glory felt as though a veil was slipping off her, revealing more and more of her true nature. With every question his mother asked, and every terse answer she gave, Glory felt his mother close off a bit, leaning back as though to consider what manner of girl she was. Her interior was frantic, grasping for something interesting to say, but monosyllables were all she could manage.

After thirty minutes, his mother’s pleasantness had cooled to politeness and Glory excused herself to the bathroom before it chilled further.

You have to come back now, she texted Thomas. Now! And he did, just as his mother grew serious and leaned in to have some say. Perfect timing as always.

Always perfect.

With Thomas there, the ease between the two women returned, but the more they talked, the more his mother touched on the expectation that Glory would drop everything and go back to Nigeria and live there with her hypothetical children, in her mother-in-law’s house. Thomas was most comfortable in Nigeria and would move back when he was done with schooling to join Glory, who would already be settled. If the idea had been hers, or if she’d even been asked, Glory might not have minded, but all this was delivered as a given, not a choice. All Thomas’s talk of we and us felt less like a collaboration now and more like a general commanding his troops. It surprised Glory to realize that she had not been the only one scheming.

After they took his mother to her hotel, Thomas and Glory idled in the parking lot, each waiting for the other to break the silence. Then, offering neither apology nor explanation, Thomas placed a box on Glory’s lap. She opened it, the hinge levering to reveal a ring that, just a year ago, she would never have imagined herself receiving. The tension returned to her neck.

A part of Glory had always thought to win her parents’ good graces by her own merit. She held out hope that one day all her missteps would stumble her into accomplishments she could hold up as her own, that the seeming chaos of her life would coalesce into an intricate puzzle whose shape one could see only when it was complete. That this ring was to be her salvation—she couldn’t bear it. And yet, salvation it was. Acceptance into many proper folds. Lies she would never again have to tell. She could lose herself in the whirlwind of Thomas, golden child become golden man.

But then Glory thought back to that first time she’d turned her luck with a truly reckless move, the thing with the dog. There was her uncle’s dog, napping. She’d felt antsy all over and a thought wormed into her head, that the tension would go away if she touched the dog’s tongue. It suddenly seemed the right and only thing to do. She rubbed the scar now, thinking of all the times she’d picked stupid over sensible, knowing, just knowing, that this time she’d gotten it right. She could not afford to get it wrong again.

Looking at the ring, resentment and elation warred till one overcame the other and Glory made another decision.

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