Why I Killed My Best Friend
This piece was submitted by Amanda Michalopoulou as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Amanda Michalopoulou’s event: A Literary Quest
I’m crouching on the lawn under the palm trees at our house in Ikeja. I’m eating something green and crunchy, using both hands because, as Gwendolyn says, you can’t catch fleas with one finger. Across from me is the stone pond with the goldfish, only it’s empty now. We can’t bring our fish with us to Athens. Where do fish go when people move? I hope they go down a pipe into the sea to find their long-lost families, and hug by rubbing their scales together since they don’t have any arms. When fish move to a new place, there are no suitcases, no tears. Mom and I have the handkerchiefs she embroidered with our initials in case we want to cry, and a shipping container for our things. Unto Punto carries everything out of the house, even my roller skates. Except for Dad’s things. Dad’s going to stay in Nigeria with the empty goldfish pond.
It’s summer and the rainy season has started. We have to leave before the beginning of the school year so I can adjust to the “Greek system.” In the Greek system the blackboard isn’t divided in half and all the kids in the class are the same age. That’s because there are lots of kids of every age. Mom says I won’t have to leave for school at five-thirty every morning. In the Greek system the schools are close to your house. So what time will I leave? More like seven-fifteen. But then I’ll be out in the heat, I’ll be all sweaty when I get to school. Oh, silly, it’s not hot in Greece. In winter people wear sweaters, heavy clothes. They go to movies and plays. Greece is our real home, Africa is the fake one. In Ikeja there are periods of political unrest. Whenever you hear the words “state of emergency,” or “Igbo and Hausa,” or the name General Ojuku, you know there won’t be any school. In Greece there’s been democracy for two straight years, so there’s no escaping homework. Why should I have to go to school every day in a place where it’s cold? What do I care about movies and plays? I’m happy with the squash club and the Marine Club where the U. S. Marines have real Coca-Cola at their parties on Fridays. I don’t want for us to lose Gwendolyn and Unto Punto and go and live in an “apartment,” as Mom whispers to Aunt Amalia over the phone. I want to ride my bike in the house, do slalom turns around the columns, ring my bell drin-dran-drin and have Gwendolyn say, “You crazy girl! I thought someone was at the door again!” and laugh out loud, holding her belly.
Mom comes up behind me silently, grabs my hair, and slaps my face twice, fast. Then she pries my mouth open with her fingers.
“What’s gotten into you? Spit it out! Now!”
A green pulp dribbles from my mouth, mixing with tears and snot.
“Haven’t I told you to never, ever eat crickets again?”
I eat crickets because Africa is my real home. Greece, the fake one.
* * *
I’m on the balcony of our apartment, crying and crying. I stuck my head through the railing and now I can’t get it out. I was just playing, I sucked in my cheeks, held my breath, and, oop, popped my head between the bars, which are as hot as the sand at the beach in Badagri or at Tarkwa Bay. Right away the floral-patterned lounge chairs sprang up before me, the banana boats and the bar that sells suya. A two-naira suya, please. With onions! Now my ears are as hot as the suya grill.
Exarheia Square is the ugliest place in the whole world. We live in a building that was designed by someone important. Everyone calls it the “blue building.” On the ground floor is Floral, a patisserie where mostly old people sit. The cars rev their engines and honk. At night I can’t sleep from the screeching of brakes in the street. The apartment is called a quad because there are four rooms in total. There’s a porthole window in the front door. The whole place is the size of one of the rooms in our house in Ikeja, only it’s divided into smaller rooms. There are two bedrooms, not five. One bathroom, not three. There’s no game room and no storage room, just a tiny pantry off the kitchen. And I’m not allowed to ride my bicycle in the apartment, because there are “people” living downstairs. Besides, even if I were allowed, how can you ride your bike in a quad? There are no columns to do turns around. If I want to ride my bike, I go to the Field of Ares with Mom and her cousin, Aunt Amalia, who’s an old maid, like Gwendolyn. But that’s where the similarity ends: Aunt Amalia is thin as a rail and very pale, like she’s sick. Sure, she knows the names of all the movie stars, but she laughs with her mouth closed. I miss Gwendolyn so much, with her belly laughs and her proverbs! Which one would she tell me now to make me feel better? No matter how wrong things go, salt never gets worms? Gwendolyn equals joy. Joy equals Africa. So I’m crying for lots of reasons, not just because my head got stuck in the railing.
I hear Mom letting herself into the apartment. Her footsteps echo down the hall.
When she finally finds me she lets out a shriek. “Maria, why do you do this to me? You’re nine years old, practically a woman! It’s time you grew up!”
A man saws through the bars and sets me free. As he saws he keeps saying, “You’re quite a handful, aren’t you?” Mom is pacing up and down in the hall. She’s angry, I can tell from the click of her heels. When she sees me come running inside she grabs me with both hands and shakes me, squeezing my wrists. No, I’m not going to cry. I’m nine years old now, practically a woman.
I wait for Mom to lie down for her afternoon siesta, go into my room and close the door. I take off all my clothes, then put on the white uniform from my school in Nigeria so the stewardesses will know I go to school in Ikeja and let me onto the plane. I have a whole bunch of naira in my pocket. How much can a child’s ticket to Africa cost? Five naira? Six? Or maybe it’ll be really expensive, and since I don’t have any money, they’ll make me work in the fields until my feet are all callused. I pull my suitcase out of my closet and pack a dress that Mom and Gwendolyn sewed, two monogrammed handkerchiefs, and my colored pencils. I can’t find any drawing paper, but that’s okay, they’ll give me some on the plane. I sneak into the kitchen and take two cans of Nounou evaporated milk, a box of Alsa Mousse, a package of Miranda cookies, and two eggs. If we land in Lagos late and I have to sleep on the beach, I’ll fry the eggs in the sand. There’ll be plenty of bananas to pick, but I might as well bring a few for the road. I wrap my roller skates in a towel so the wheels won’t clatter. Dear Mom, I write in a note, I’m going to see Gwendolyn and Dad for a few days. Come as soon as you can! And bring my bicycle. Love, Maria. On the bottom of the page I draw the stone pond in Ikeja, with the goldfish flopping around on the ground, out of the water. If she doesn’t feel sorry for me, maybe she’ll at least feel sorry for our fish. Lots of buses are passing by. I get on the one the most people are waiting for. The eggs roll around in my suitcase. I hope they don’t break.
“A ticket for the airport, please. Can I pay in naira?”
The ticket collector smiles. He looks like Unto Punto, only he’s white. Neither one of them has many teeth. “You give someone the slip?” he asks.
“Excuse me?” Giving someone the slip doesn’t mean anything to me. My Greek isn’t very good.
“Where do you live, miss?”
“In Exarheia, but right now I’m going to Nigeria, to see Gwendolyn and Dad.”
“Nigeria? The black people will eat you!” “Black people don’t eat!” “Oh, they eat, all right.” “Yes, but they eat yams or amala or moyin-moyin, not other people!”
“But you’re so small and tender, they’ll open their mouths, mmmm, and gobble you up in a single bite, because people in Africa are very hungry. Haven’t you heard?”
Heard what? Has there been more unrest? Another state of emergency? Did General Ojuku come back? Maybe the ticket collector is right, and instead of hugging me Gwendolyn will sink her teeth into me, saying, “The fear of tomorrow makes the snail carry its home wherever it goes.”
How could the world have changed so much in just two weeks? Does salt really not get worms? I get off at the next stop, on the verge of tears. But I’m not going to cry. I’m nine years old, practically a woman.
I sit down on my suitcase and eat my banana as slowly as I can, running my tongue over my broken tooth. The story is that I broke it just now, during my adventures, I’m the heroine of a fairytale who has to endure various trials. I squint my eyes and pretend I’m on our covered veranda in Ikeja, under the bougainvillea. I’m eating vanilla ice cream, my favorite flavor. Gwendolyn is ironing in the shade and telling me my favorite story, the one about the two friends, Dola and Bambi. Dola has a walnut tree and animals are always eating its leaves. Bambi gives her a big pot with a hole in the bottom to plant her tree in, so the animals won’t be able to get at the leaves. When Dola starts to make lots of money from selling her walnuts, Bambi gets jealous and wants her pot back. But for that to happen they have to kill the tree, since now it’s rooted in the pot. Bambi is stubborn. She wants her pot back! The village judge decides in her favor—Bambi will get her pot. So the poor walnut tree dies. The next year, Dola gives Bambi a gold necklace for her birthday. Ten years later she decides she wants it back. But in order to get at the necklace, Bambi’s head will have to come off. They go back to the village judge and he says that since Dola insists, they’ll have to cut off Bambi’s head, and that’s that. Bambi cries a river of tears, Dola takes pity on her, and in the end Bambi lives. No one is jealous of anyone anymore, because jealousy is the worst thing of all.
Two police officers appear just as it’s getting dark. They say they’ll take me home in their patrol car and ask if I’ve thought about how my mother must feel. I have thought about that, I think about it all the time, we’re not happy in this country and we need to go home soon, while Gwendolyn is still our friend and cares about us and doesn’t have the heart to eat us.
Mom has been crying. Her eyes are puffy. She doesn’t shake me, doesn’t squeeze my wrists, just combs her fingers through my hair.
“I think the eggs in my suitcase broke,” I say.
“No use crying over broken eggs,” Mom replies, which is almost as clever as one of Gwendolyn’s proverbs. Then she hugs me. Her hugs still smell just as warm, just as African as ever.
This piece is excerpted from Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from Greek by Karen Emmerich, Open Letter (2014).