Second, You Are Really Nigerian: Fiction by JoAnn Stevelos


Fiction by JoAnn Stevelos

Second, You Are Really Nigerian

JoAnn Stevelos, Ogun, 2000, mixed media, 18 by 20 inches. Photo by Tom MacGregor. Says Stevelos: “The photo is of one of my paintings of an Egungun of Ogun. In short, an Egun gun is a type of Yoruba masquerade or costume connected with ancestor worship.”
JoAnn Stevelos, Ogun, 2000, mixed media, 18 by 20 inches. Photo by Tom MacGregor. Says Stevelos: “The photo is of one of my paintings of an Egungun of Ogun. In short, an Egun gun is a type of Yoruba masquerade or costume connected with ancestor worship.”

One morning I woke up to find myself spooning Lana Jackson’s granddaughter—the beautiful, righteous, god-love-you-all, famous gospel soul diva, Lana Jackson. Her name was Maya, and I loved her like I would die if I didn’t. I fell for her long stories but I have come to tell a shorter, less Shakespearean version; she was a drama queen, who wore taffeta dresses in the daytime, who thought she could sing better than her grandmother and was convinced that Billie Holiday was a distant cousin.

First, Do No Harm, Part I
When I met her she was on a stretcher while a nurse held her hands so that I could stitch up her freshly cut wrists. After working the ER for a couple of years I learned that the more serious you are about getting to the other side, the deeper the cut. Maya’s cuts were not those of deep despair, but she was definitely contemplating relief in the great beyond. When I was done she stood by the bed like a Giacometti statue, her hands in an open prayer-like position as if holding a void. She began to weep, “I don’t know who I am or what I am doing.”

“Neither do I,” I said, as she laid her head on my chest. I asked her to please, just stay, and promised her we would figure out something together.

As I helped Maya, I knew I was compromising my sacred oath to “First, do no harm.” I not only allowed myself to fall in love with a patient, but I shamelessly assumed an unnatural responsibility for her well-being. I wanted to change the rules to “Always do as much good as you can” so that the future we concocted for her would include me too. And that is exactly what happened. It was only a matter of time before she got pregnant, told me she hated me, then told me she loved me, then had an abortion, then hated me again, and slit her wrists for the second time. We were right back where we started. I was crazy angry and so pathetically clueless that I knew it was time I paid a visit to the Uncles.

When I arrived, my three uncles were relaxing on a bench listening to Miles Davis, heads bowed, feet tapping. Since no one ever interrupts “In a Silent Way” I sat down quietly on the porch and listened to Miles play through the hiss of the vinyl twirling on the old hi-fi. The soprano sax was wooing the bass that was defiantly ignoring the organ and I was with my Uncles. We were listening to Miles.

The album ended and Uncle One raised his head and said to no one in particular, “Well here he is, Dr. Harvard Medical School himself.”

Uncle Two, always soft with his words, smiled and said, “Hello nephew, nice of you to come by.”

Uncle Three simply gazed past me and muttered to the other two, “He’s been done over,” then shifted his gaze to me. “Just look at him, yup, must be a woman, woman trouble.”

I nodded, humbly sinking into the dank wood of the stoop. Uncle One, because he couldn’t help himself, “All those fancy degrees and yet, he still sits here with his old uncles needing help with the rules.” Again, I nodded, but with even more humility. Reveling in my acquiescence, Uncle One finally settled down and was ready to listen. This is how it went every time. Uncle One reminded me that they were the ones with the love and sensibilities that prepared me to compete for the coveted Harvard Medical School. And I dutifully acknowledged their infinite wisdom and assumed my place in the hierarchy as one who was smart but not wise.

With my hat covering my eyes and my heart in their hands I gave the details of my demise. The recent abortion event, Maya and her craziness, and last and very far from least my enduring love for her. My Uncles conferred momentarily, and then said three things. “First, if a woman truly loves you she will never intentionally hurt you. Second, you are really Nigerian. Third, pack your bags, go to Africa and stop thinking about yourself so much. You are a doctor, so doctor where people need doctors.”

As I walked through the clinic door I ran right into a nurse holding two infants. Her name was Gloria, as was clearly stamped on her name tag. She handed me one of the infants and a bottle and asked who I was and why I was there. I sat on a crappy old waiting room bench, put the bottle in the baby’s mouth and said, “I am Henry. I am here because my uncles told me to be here.”

Gloria laughed and said, “Man! You got some crazy uncles.” I shrugged to acknowledge that she wasn’t telling me something I didn’t already know. I sat there feeding the infant. When I was done Gloria handed me one baby after another until the sun began to set. I was exhausted. I would watch Gloria, who could feed two at once. She was efficient, loving and patient all at the same time. She was the most beautiful woman I ever met. When the feeding was done, we changed them all, only to then begin rounds. This was our work, Gloria and me. We were always together. When we fed them, when we changed them, and always, when we buried them.

You would think that faced with the idea of being a father, a normal single male would flee, but you would have to see her face. The intelligence, the dead-on you-know-you-like-me stare, the mouth that easily laughed and, later as I would come to understand, the truest evidence of relentless love from kindhearted parents. There she was sitting in the clinic, by herself, kind of resting, kind of waiting. When I asked her name, she said, “I am Abebi, your daughter.” And so she was, right then and there, my daughter, as if she grew right out of my left hip and had been there all the time. Her birth was simple, timely and as right as the sun; I am Abebi, your daughter.

Later that night I agreed with Abebi that I would be her father. I told her that if we closed our eyes and asked the heavens together she would come to us, a new mother for her, and a wife for me. I was desperate, you know, to try to comfort her, but I also must admit that I really did believe it too. I had to. I loved Abebi so much when it didn’t make sense to love anyone. I put my arms around her as we closed our eyes and looked up to the sky and together said, “Come to us, we are ready.”

Gloria’s face had two expressions I liked best. The first was that of a young girl, hand on her hip, with an “I am so serious, you better not give me any crap” look and the second was when she glanced off to the side, smiling, distracted by something that amused only her. I had seen Gloria with both these expressions. I saw the first look when the United Nations’ AIDS staff showed up to audit the clinic files. Gloria told them that we needed more money, food, diapers, and drugs, please, or just send more body bags. The UNAIDS staff said they understood but there was only so much they could do, which set Gloria onto the next round of demands with her hand on the hip. It was this look that sent them hurrying towards the door. Afterwards Gloria was completely silent until one of the children drew her back with a hug, or a kiss, or a request for water; and that is when the second look appeared. She saved it for the innocent.

It was after one of these visits that I finally came to realize that Gloria would be the perfect wife and mother. This was an ideal situation and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I hadn’t thought of this before. What a fool I’d been sometimes, still pining for Maya, or watching the movements of any healthy-looking female that came within ten feet of me to see if she could be the one. My concerns at the time focused on the practicality of the situation at hand. All three of us had found ourselves in Africa alone, all three of us needed each other and all three of us got along.

Well, I had forgotten to consider Gloria’s feelings in my great plan. When I presented the idea to Gloria she hauled off and slapped me upside the head while screaming “Are you crazy? You, Henry, have stepped on my very last nerve!” She went up one side of me and down the other and pointed to every flaw in my character, both ones that were obvious and ones that I thought were well hidden, and then she slugged me again. When things settled down, she asked me to forgive her and said she was just mad that it took me so long to ask. Yes, of course, she will marry me, it makes perfect sense. We were kindred spirits, you know what I mean; she was my familiar, my bodhisattva, but mostly she was the woman I loved—my beloved. I had forgotten Maya, in all the ways that forgetting matters.

Ogun, God of Truth and Work
A few days before I received “the call” I had one of those dreams that left me unable to settle back into my own skin. In my dream I was flying over railroad tracks when I spotted a soft-bellied woman walking barefoot on the bed of rocks that lay inside the rails. She seemed to float over the tracks as she balanced a basket of eggs on her head. I flew in closer and for some reason it was urgent that I counted the eggs in her basket, and as I did, I noticed some coins. I swooped down and stole the coins, only then to feel a tether on my ankle. Ogun stood on the tracks holding a string that was tied to my ankle as if I was his very own kite. I looked down to find that Ogun’s face was a composite of my Uncles’. He had Uncle One’s penetrating eyes, Uncle Two’s soft easy mouth and Uncle Three’s creased brow. I immediately flew back to the woman and as I returned the coins I knocked the basket from her head. A deep shame rose up through me as I watched the eggs shatter onto the tracks and as she turned her head to look up at me, it was Maya’s face laughing.

First, Do No Harm, Part II
My love, my Maya, who I once thought I would die for. Maya who employed an expert coyness to beckon love and validation. Maya who could wrap me in a silence that led me to believe that I was with someone who knew the truth, someone who had the inside scoop on the master plan. It took 10,000 miles between us and a phone call for me to finally figure out that she was just a really good bullshitter.

When the call came through the clinic, she took me by complete surprise.

“Hello,” as if she were calling me back home in my apartment in Brooklyn.

“Hello,” I returned. Maya continued like this was no extraordinary event—like I had not cleared out to Africa six months ago to forget her. As expected her voice was direct.

“Come home now. I can’t live without you.” The very last thing I expected to hear, “Come home now.” This is my home now, doesn’t she know that? Can she not hear it in my voice, in my hello? But as her voice retraced its old path to the center of my heart, I became her Henry again.

“Maya, I can’t do that, I have patients.” What am I saying? No Henry, you have a wife and daughter, and patients. I felt Maya’s breath confront my confusion. “Just a minute,” I say, “one moment please.” I put the phone next to my chest and I breathed. “Maya,” I said, “I am on the next plane; I’m coming, I’m coming.”

And Forever, You Are Nigerian
When I dreamed of leaving Nigeria it was not on a boat. I simply walked out of Africa through a lovely wood across the Brooklyn Bridge to my front door. As the plane headed northwest I drifted off into a dream that put me on that boat on a river. I was holding the most basic map, as I drifted downriver and began to question my decision to leave Africa. When had I become this man who thought it was acceptable to leave his family to respond to a suicide threat of a blues-singing crazy ex-lover in Brooklyn?

When I arrived at JFK, I got a cab, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, hiked up the four floors to Maya’s apartment, and knocked on the door, only to have it answered by a man who claimed to be her new boyfriend. I gave him my sympathies, turned around, went back across the Brooklyn Bridge, got back in my boat, and rowed the boat to shore, where I fell to the ground exhausted. I was awakened by Ogun who handed me a basket of fresh eggs, a knife, and a railroad pin. I carried everything to our new hut and presented Gloria the basket of eggs. I gave Abebi the railroad pin, and I slipped the knife into a sheath that was attached to my belt as if I had always owned it. Then with an authority of divine nonchalance, Gloria told Abebi to go with me to the well to wash up for dinner. I am at the well. I am with my family. I am home.

JoAnn Stevelos is a freelance writer living in Upstate New York. .