Obi Nwizu received her MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University in the United Kingdom. Born in Anambra State, Nigeria, raised in Atlanta, Georgia, but currently calling Harlem home, Obi is a lover of month-long international vacations, vegan food, afrobeat, and rom-coms. When not writing, she teaches Creative Writing for the City University of New York and frolics around the city in six-inch heels. You can visit her at Obiwrites.com and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
By Obi Nwizu
The sun seeped through the white gated window and drew Nneka’s eyes open. She turned on her side and felt the stiffness of the wooden bed panel covered with a light sheet. It was Tuesday. Uncle Wang, her Chinese father, sautéed eggs and tomatoes in the kitchen, the aroma entering the bedroom and rising Nneka to her feet. She wrapped her body in a heavy jumper and closed the window, cutting off the brisk air from entering. Mrs. Wang was always in charge of closing all of the windows in the house first thing in the morning. Her feet would shuffle on the floorboards, a slow and steady stride, a motherly demeanor as she pulled the comforter over Nneka’s body if she spotted the cloth shifted to the side or fallen to the floor.
“Sleepy Nneka” Uncle Wang, said, cheerfully. He placed a large plate of food next to two small bowls of rice. “Sit sit,” he said in usual eager manner.
Nneka felt the weight of Mrs. Wang’s absence the moment she sat in her seat. Twenty-four hours hadn’t passed since she died during her afternoon nap. Uncle Wang sat frozen by her side on the couch. He watched her as if a dreaded day had finally arrived, a prophecy fulfilled in its due time.
“Wǒ měilì de gōngzhǔ,” Uncle Wang quietly wailed as he dropped his head into the lap of his beautiful princess. Nneka watched from the bedroom door. She crossed her arms over her chest, pressed them deeper into her breast. She felt inept to cry. She liked Mrs. Wang, but her encounters with her were reduced to small acts of kindness similar to her Nigeran mother, a reinforcement through duties rather than words. Mrs. Wang would spread a napkin on Nneka’s lap before she ate. She encouraged her to drink hot tea three times a day and to sleep on her back to improve her posture. When Nneka arrived at the Chengdu international airport, it was Uncle Wang who greeted her while Mrs. Wang prepped dinner at home. When Nneka need a piece of clothing to remind her of New York City, of home, it was Mrs. Wang who accompanied her and gave a thumbs up and a joyful “beautiful” whenever Nneka emerged from the dressing room. Little, random acts of heightened volume spanning four months. She left Uncle Wang in the living room. She heard his sniffles through the bedroom door left ajar. The house was quiet from the bickering of a marriage of 42 years, the quick snapping, teasing, laughing, scolding, remnants of growing, changing love.
“You’re in a cheerful mood,” Nneka said as she spooned off a piece of egg and dug it into her small bowl of white rice.
Uncle Wang filled her glass cup with hot water as the jasmine flowers settled underneath. “Each day is a new day,” he said. “And we must live today, not yesterday.”
Nneka ate quietly, not sure whether to mention Mrs. Wang. There was mechanicalness about Chinese society she hadn’t understood, a repressing of feelings as though expressing anything but positiveness endangered souls and their existence. In her few months in the society, everything was approached with joyful inquisitiveness, down to Mrs. Wang counting the number of individual braids in her hair after they ate dinner. Nneka laughed uncomfortably unable to lash out at the invasion and the feeling of an animal displayed at a petting zoo. Uncle Wang understood. As a retired construction worker, he’d traveled around the globe enough to know when to reel back his lack of boundaries. In Nigeria, he was treated like a king though he was simply a worker without recognition in China. He told Nneka of being offered women by village chiefs as a means to thank you. Nneka laughed at the image. Five-four Uncle Wang. Muscle-less Uncle Wang. Skin and Bones Uncle Wang in sexual proximity to a voluptuous Nigerian woman.
“Did you take them up on the offer,” Nneka had asked.
“No, no, no,” Uncle Wang humorously confessed. “I was there to work.”
The same easy spirit covered Uncle Wang in the house that he would soon live in alone. Sichuan University offered Nneka a position to teach English Language and Literature. And if she agreed to read English books to rambunctious Chinese third graders, they would throw in an near-campus modernized apartment equipped with Ikea furniture and an American toilet. However, a week before her trip, the admissions office informed Nneka that her apartment move-in date was delayed for four months, and she would be paired with a host family, an English-speaking Chinese family who was well-traveled and liked American food, pizza with pepperoni preferably.
Nneka was determined to leave New York City behind. The swiftness of its streets matched the badgering of Chike and Ijeoma, her parents, who constantly needed to know how Nneka could not find a man to bring home in a city of millions.
“How is it that at 25 years, you don’t bring me someone you can marry?” Ijeom would say as though witnessing an abomination in the flesh.
Nneka could not answer what her mind did not focus on. She grew tired of tripe and goat cooking in soup as her diet switched to consuming only turkey, fish, leafy vegetables, tomatoes, bell peppers and mushrooms. Every time Ijeoma screamed Nneka’s name to grab something she could easily grab herself, Nneka thought of leaving. When Chike failed to show enthusiasm at her published articles in the Caribbean Daily, she thought of leaving. Chike and Ijeoma tried to stir Nneka to return to school, to forget the useless Journalism degree she acquired and reimagine herself in a white coat with Dr. Odo stitched onto the top right pocket.
China was Nneka’s escape. A place her finger landed on when she spun the globe on top of her bedroom dresser. It was a place of fluidity within her own parameters. No one would follow her there. Chike and Ijeoma’s peers could not expose her for downing afternoon beers. They could no longer take the false title of aunts and uncles for the sake of inquiring and invading. Leaving became a heightened obligation. An obligation to unshackle the expectations of her country, of her city; to release them from her ankles and slide them under her feet.
“I can stay longer. Here. With you,” Nneka said, finishing her bowl of rice. “I can take a bus from the university.”
“That’s a long way. There is nothing to do here. This isn’t a place of a young person.”
“I can’t leave you here…with what just happened.”
“Oh, Nneka. You are very very kind,” Uncle Wang said. He patted Nneka’s hand. “I will be okay. Death comes to everyone. And Měiíng is coming today. She gets here tonight. 7 pm.”
Nneka hadn’t met Měiíng. She’d left for the University of Texas in Austin before Nneka arrived. She was a girl of American dreams, that’s what Uncle Wang said. She regularly asked for money to eat and shop and attend movie theaters. Uncle Wang wondered how much studying she was doing. "The dog ate my homework" became a common excuse when asked for a picture of her studies. Mrs. Wang said she learned that saying from her American friends. Once, Měiíng asked to speak to Nneka on the phone. Her voice was elevated as if there was something to prove or display. She spoke quickly, jamming her words together in an attempt to imitate the Texas drawl of her surroundings. The call was on speaker. Uncle Wang and Mrs. Wang giggled at how silly their daughter sounded, comically blaming it on American corruption.
Nneka cleared the table. She ran hot water into the wok and dumped the breakfast plates inside. She paused and looked over her shoulder. Uncle Wang was staring at the living room couch as though someone was there. He held his arms between his legs and simmered to a child as if drifted to moments long ago, a place separate from where he sat.
His parents didn’t want him to marry Suìpíng. She was the daughter of a widowed brown farmer. Suìpíng’s mother died while giving birth. Sometimes her father looked at Suìpíng as though seeing his wife and cried. Sometimes he screamed at Suìpíng for taking too long to sell all of the grapeseed flowers. He believed giving her away would have been a relief. For he could die and she could be reborn into a better life. On Sundays, she pulled grapeseed flowers out of obligation and sold them on the end of Wangjang Xi road, at the dead-end which led to heightened bushes. She sat at a wobbly table with a tattered sign soliciting customers. She sat there until she had enough money for a week's worth of pork and chicken. One late afternoon as the sun settled, Léi Wěi, approached Suìpíng’s table. He stuttered how many flowers we wanted to purchase. He fidgeted with his hands in the pockets of his creased trousers. He rocked back and forth on his heels. His black hair hung to his shoulders and his skin was a mark-less pale. A backpack was strapped to his back. He took the wrapped up flowers, but was reluctant to leave.
“I am Léi Wěi Wang,” he said in English, feeling impressed with himself that he’d remembered the order of the introduction.
Suìpíng eyed him, confused as if he spoke a foreign language.
“Ah,” Léi Wěi said at the realization. “Wǒ jiào Wáng Léi Wěi.”
“Wǒ shì Suìpíng,” she said through laughter.
Léi Wěi focused on Suìpíng’s eyes. They were an unusual light gray and bigger than all he’d seen. Determination rested in them with an outer layer of sadness, one Léi Wěi wanted to discover and heal. Five months later, Léi Wěi wanted to propose. He did not have his own money for a ring and his parents refused to barter on their son’s behalf. Farmers were ostracized. They married other farmers and their offspring, never those of civilizations who didn’t meddle in dirt. Upon hearing that Suìpíng's mother did not survive birthing her, the Wangs’ heart did not soften. The shame of a windowed man would not be attached to their name.
Léi Wěi fetched Suìpíng in the middle of the night. They both agreed that at three in the morning, Suìpíng would creak the kitchen door open and wait for Léi Wěi’s arm to appear and wave her out. She left a letter next to her father’s pillow, cried a little for the red envelope she wouldn’t receive, the wedding gown she wouldn’t wear, the red, the yellow, the celebratory occasion that she thought herself better than, the exterior materialization for strangers to witness. But walking away, giving up on what all Chinese girls wanted even though ashamed to announce and focus on it, made her miss her mother. She realized that some things she will never have, and that realization had to be accepted. She breathed in the cold air entering through the slightly opened kitchen door and waited.
Beneath Uncle Wang’s expectance, Nneka knew he mourned. All humans did when they weren’t upholding the shield their society called for. When Uncle Wang finally dozed off for his afternoon nap, she covered his small body with a hefty blanket. He sat upright, head trust backward, and Nneka lifted the fabric up to his chin. She stayed at his side throughout the afternoon, not saying much beyond the routine questions of what he grabbed from the downstairs market.
The market women hadn’t heard the news or if they did, they did not show Nneka pity. They hadn’t rid themselves of the need to stare at her as if her presence hadn’t become familiar. They often stopped what they were doing. If someone was handing over money for apples, they stopped mid exchange as if frozen in time. If a woman was arranging the vegetables on her table, she did so with her eyes glued to Nneka as she walked past. A short weighty woman waited for Nneka. She was the only seller who executed patience with Nneka’s choppy Mandarin while treating her like any other customer.
“Laowai!” she called from her booth, excitedly waving Nneka over.
“Ni hao,” Nneka said shyly, cautious of bringing more attention her way. She hadn’t learned the seller's name. For a name created a sense of intimacy she hadn’t convinced herself she was ready for; not in a place that one person returning it wasn’t enough to combat those who refused to see anything beyond her foreign black body. She pointed at a block of tofu drying on a brown mat.
“Yīgè,” Nneka said.
“Wǒ yào yīgè,” the woman corrected.
“Shì, de,” Nneka smiled. “Wǒ yào yīgè”
“Fēicháng hǎo!” The woman gave a thumbs up. This mini-lesson continued until everything Nneka wanted was purchased.
Uncle Wang had moved to the exact spot where the ambulance removed Mrs. Wang’s body. He stretched out, hugged the throw pillow close to his chest, pulled his knees below the bottom of the pillow while a faint smile sat on his lips. He did not acknowledge Nneka’s return. A memory engulfed him. Drizzle tapped on the windows like nail tips on wood ushering in the early darkness of winter. Měiíng would soon arrive. She never gave Nneka the appearance of a comforting daughter, even on the phone as her calls mere more so demands or pleads for things. But hours later, the doorbell rang and Měiíng quickly collapsed into Nneka’s arms before she could close the door behind her. Women were allowed to physically grieve. It was expected to see their tears fall for issues of grave magnitude and simplicity such as the sun rejecting their opened umbrella and tanning their skin.
“Your father’s in the bathroom,” Nneka said, hesitantly patting her back. “I made mapo dofu and some bok choy if you want to eat.”
“Eat?” Měiíng said, lifting her face from Nneka’s shoulder. “How can you eat at this time?”
“Your father and I ate breakfast. He said it’s ok.”
Měiíng’s eyes reduced Nneka to a house girl. “Where’s my father?”
“He’s in the bathroom.”
The toilet flushed, igniting the clanking pipes. Uncle Wang called Měiíng into his arms upon seeing her in fancy American attire—a knee-length black wool coat, a lavender scarf wrapped around her neck and a wool beret.
“You look very pretty Mey,” Uncle Wang said.
“Bàba, nǐ hǎo. Nǐ hǎo ma?”
“I am very good,” he said. “Very very good.”
Měiíng peered over her shoulder at Nneka for verification. They were close in age with Nneka four years older, tipping towards thirty. If she considered Měiíng her actual sister rather than one appointed to her, she would return her attitude with a side of threatening cuss words. Měiíng helped Uncle Wang to his kitchen seat and sat him down. He tried to make a fuss about it, reiterating that he wasn’t a cripple and unable to guide or walk on his own.
“Are you sure you don’t want Mama buried?” Měiíng asked.
“You’re English is so much better, Mey,” said Uncle Wang.
“I am focused.”
“You really are not having second thoughts about burning Mama up? I don’t think you should do it. If you spread the ashes in the grapeseed field of her home, where can I visit her? You’re throwing her away.”
“It’s not about what we want. Your mother wants this. I have to give it to her.”
“You do not,” Měiíng yelled. She paced around the kitchen table. “Why can’t we do what makes us comfortable? We are the ones that are left. We are the ones that have to deal with her being gone.”
“That’s selfish,” Nneka mouthed to herself, not quite enough, however.
“No one asked you,” Měiíng shot out in anger. “You are not family.”
Uncle Wang called Měiíng’s name several times to calm her down. “We did not teach you how to talk like that to your elders.”
“But she’s not an elder.”
“She is your elder.”
Měiíng released a sigh of frustration before turning to apologize to Nneka who was not looking for one. Emotions were high, she knew, especially for a daughter who hadn’t seen her mother for three years since leaving China. She gave Měiíng the grace she simultaneously did and did not deserve. Mrs. Wang wanted more for Měiíng since time had rolled into an era of opportunity. Měiíng could step into open doors that valued her brain rather than the paleness of her skin or the bright red lipstick spread across her lips. Mrs. Wang believed waking Měiíng at five in the morning to prep breakfast, forcing her to make market runs for lunch, and learning to prepare three main dishes for dinner while not faltering in her studies would somehow instill the value of hard work. Instead, Měiíng shed the cloak once arriving in America. She indulged in the preconceived notions of college life, the wildness and independence of it. She avoided Chinese boys and swallowed three Plan Bs. She hiked her skirts above her knees and squeezed her thin frame into curvaceous jeans. It was freedom.
Měiíng took a leave of absence from the remaining of the semester to return home. She was on the verge of flunking. Grief struck at the perfect time.
The kitchen fell quiet as Měiíng contemplated accompanying Léi Wěi to Suìpíng’s home. It was a two-hour drive, a destitute village that illuminated the humble beginnings of her lineage. Nneka volunteered her attendance, even offered to drive if Léi Wěi became too distraught.
“Your mother would like for you to be there,” Léi Wěi said, attempting to shift Měiíng in his direction.
“She’s not here and she still forces me to do things I don’t want,” said Měiíng through teary laughter that shattered walls of hidden emotions. Society’s expectations, its requirements in times of pain, fell to the hardwood floors and seeped into the cracks. Honesty, the underlayer, dawned.
Torch Literary Arts is a nonprofit organization established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Colleen J. McElroy, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.