It was their voices that chased me; the loud derisive laughter that followed me down the street. I was anxious. Was it me? It had to be. I could feel their eyes all over me. Or was I being paranoid? Why would anyone look at me anyway? Peal after peal of laughter broke out behind me as if on cue. Maybe it’s my hair, I thought desperately. I patted it hastily as I quickened my steps down the path that led from my house to the main road. The dusty hem of my skirt flapped around my ankles as I tried to speed-walk past them – drunk men under a tree; loud traders sitting on benches outside their stalls to lap up what little breeze a February evening could offer.
I wanted to outrun their laughter and the now irritatingly long hem of my skirt. They all seemed to echo his parting text: “babez I lyk yhu. Ur kul nd al buh yhu know we move wit dfrnt crowds. It wud jez b awkward 4 both of us.” I woke up to it yesterday the way fine girls wake up to flowers and candy on random mornings. Short, crisp and with a nonchalance in its tone as if to say, “you understand now, it’s not that serious.” I knew what he meant with the crowd thing. I wouldn’t fit in with his friends and their girlfriends with Brazilian weaves and bodies sparkling with all manner of adornment. Whose every instagram post had ‘slay’ in the caption and thousands of likes. Who were everything I did not have the means, the courage or the permission to be.
Deji had swept me off my feet from the first day. His deep voice and the faint traces of foreignness in his accent made his every word pure gold; I would replay everything he said in my head over and over again each night. Even now, I can still hear his voice breaking up with me in those few careless words. But I saw it coming and if I’m being honest, I couldn’t blame him; I should have known I was doomed from the start.
I met him in my favourite skirt. It was long – the only kind my mother allowed her girls to wear – nearly sweeping the floor, black and just tight enough to remain on my waist and show the outline of my hips. Mummy smiled every time I wore it, she said I looked elegant. She is an English teacher, my mother – one of the very good ones in the country, so there was a way she said the word ‘elegant’ that made me feel like she was the only one who truly understood what it meant. I would pair it with a long sleeved shirt, taking care to ensure that it did not draw any attention to my rather full breasts and a pair of smart black shoes – Mummy despises sandals. As I stepped out of my room, she would look over the rims of her reading glasses and send me back to attend to my hair. Another peal of laughter rose behind me. It was loud and phlegmy and quickly turned to an equally loud and phlegmy bout of coughs. I instinctively smoothed my hair knowing it was futile. Mummy always complained that I needed to pay more attention to my hair. I would always have to drag a brush ruthlessly through the dense springy mass on my head and force it into a tight bun secured by several pins to keep the errant tufts in place. Only after this painful exercise would I receive her approving nod and the long awaited, “you look very elegant my dear.” I would smile and conclude that the throbbing headache under the neatly packed hair was worth it after all.
Today, I hadn’t had the time or energy for my hair. What did it matter anyway? It wasn’t a silky weave, it wouldn’t swing when I tossed my head. It would only escape from the bun and point skyward. I just wanted to get to Sister Josephine’s house. Despite the ten year age difference, she was the only person in the world who really understood me. I just hoped that her husband would have travelled like he often did – I can’t stand him you see- I still think she could have done so much better.
The speed-walk was a bad idea. I could feel the sweat running down my face and into my eyes, even my shirt now clung to my back. I felt disgusting. Maybe that was why Deji left me. Those other girls never seemed to sweat, they just dabbed their faces daintily with little tissues and complained about “this Naija sun” as if a different one were assigned to each country. I hated being jealous but I couldn’t help it. I would never be able to compete with them. I didn’t even have the luxury of hating them; I just wanted to be them – and have natural hair that looked soft and pampered, expensive perfumes, perfectly drawn eyebrows and a mother that would let me do and own those things. I love my mother but I felt she had somehow cost me Deji with all her rules and proclamations of my imaginary
beauty and elegance. She really had me believing that I didn’t need any of it – the makeup, the tight clothing, the fake hair and jewellery to be beautiful – that I was prettier than most girls and those things would only attract unnecessary attention to my body. With all the confidence of a child, I had believed that I was beautiful because Mummy said I was. I knew differently this morning after yesterday’s anger had solidified into a calm and heavy depression. I am…average in height and weight. My hair is natural and quite full but is an unremarkable dark brown. It hasn’t had the luxury of deep conditioning and all the machinations that make the natural look glamorous for other girls. My complexion is equally unremarkable so that I am neither a black beauty nor one of the more favoured light skinned goddesses. I actually wept when I pinched a generous fold of extra flesh from my stubbornly round tummy. My thick straight eyebrows, flat nose and small lips sealed my fate. I’m actually not a fine girl.
A group of guys swaggered past me and I found myself wishing one of them would look at me or even make a vulgar comment that would have horrified me two days ago. They seemed to fall silent as they approached. I stared at the ground – every loose stone, every blade of grass and pure water sachet had my attention. I tried to walk a little more gracefully without appearing to try. My skirt felt like a tent; a long, black hideous tent fastened to my waist. I felt conspicuous and small at the same time. I thought about when I met Deji and he said I was different from the other girls he had known. That I was effortlessly beautiful. They passed quietly; their eyes seemed to focus on me for a fraction of a second before they either looked away or appeared to see through me. Not into my soul but through me to the uncompleted building behind me. I was invisible. Invisible.
I must have had an epiphany then. I saw the exact moment when Deji began to notice my dowdy clothes and plain face. When I lost the mystery of buried potential and took on the irritatingness of wasted potential. He had come in his car – a neat little Yaris – to take me out and I had worn my black skirt (for luck you see, since I was wearing when we met) he gave me an odd look that I didn’t understand until I passed that group of guys. It was blank. Even when he held my hand it felt empty. When we bumped into some of his friends at the cinema he introduced me simply as Onome and seemed in a hurry to leave immediately after the movie. We never went out in public after that. He would come to hostel in the evening and we would listen to music in his car or he would come to my house when Mummy wasn’t home. Gradually, he began to fade away and make half-hearted excuses for his absence. I knew it was over but I just could not let go until yesterday’s text came in.
They started laughing. Hot tears stung my eyes and I broke into a sprint. I no longer cared about the sweat or the heat. I just had to escape.
My skirt must have gotten caught on one of the abandoned barbed wires rolled up beside the road. I stumbled mid- sprint and fell- right into the path of an old car with a learner’s L.
I think I passed out or went into shock or something. I could hear loud voices from a distance but I couldn’t make out the words. All I was fully aware of was my skirt. The long black monstrosity that brought Deji into my life and irritated him out of it in five short weeks. He must have hated it and its many counterparts; I could tell by the way he shoved at their folds as he slid his teasing fingers up my legs to reduce me to a shivering, wanton mess. Or was that just lust? My mind was foggy. But one thing was clear: long black skirts will lie to you and tell you that you are ‘elegant’. They will bring a charming Yoruba demon into your life. They will drive him out of it and leave you with a poorly spelt break up text. Then they will make people laugh at you. When you’re thoroughly embarrassed and miserable, they will trip you and leave you injured. They bring nothing but bad luck.
At least, I thought as I drifted into the light, mine is torn.