by Raquel Nweze
I opened the bleaching cream Mama used and read the instructions. Clean and dry the skin before applying. Rub well. Wash hands. It had a loud pungent smell. I hurried to close the white top, and put it back on the sink. I caught a glimpse of my naked reflection in the mirror, and jolted my eyes shut. Who invented mirrors I wondered. Why do mirrors reveal so much of what you would rather not see? There is no hiding from a mirror. There is no escape, unless you are blind.
I remembered my friend Yana telling me to try cocoa butter. The only butter I knew of was in the refrigerator. I was hesitant to try, but desperate to rid of the stretch marks that burdened my skin. I walked into the kitchen and flipped the light switch. A giant cockroach scattered in the corner, and disappeared into a crack in the wall. I turned the light back off to avoid seeing more critters scurrying across the floor. I opened the rusted refrigerator door. The inside reeked of spoiled milk, and rotten food. The motor revved in fight of keeping what was inside cold, but it was old, and would soon lose the battle. I moved over Mama’s six pack to grab the container of butter. I sat on the upswept wood floor, and scooped my entire hand in soft lukewarm butter. I rubbed every bit of it on my naked belly. I laid back, arms stretched out like Jesus on the cross, marinating in a pint of Betty Crocker.
“Chauncey! Get up!” mama screamed. My eyes opened to the boldness of the sun flashing through the kitchen window. I felt the warmth penetrating my buttered skin. Mama stepped over me and grabbed a beer from the open fridge. “This beer is hot as hell,” she said. I managed to stand up without slipping in the greasy mess of butter and dashed to the bathroom. The shattered mirror resembled my tattered skin. The stretch marks were still there, staring back into my eyes, each scar holding a painful memory.
There I stood paralyzed with pain from the waist down. Warm liquid trickled down the center of my thighs halting my ability to breath. Bright red blood stained the wood floor in the living room. I wanted to scream. But I knew better than to scream in Mama’s house. Uncle Ruben taught me that.
I woke up in an unfamiliar place. My eyes darted around a claustrophobic white room. My cold bones sank into a hard mattress. Machines beeped and lights flashed. All rhythmic to the sound of my pounding heart. I heard Mama talking to someone in her funny sounding voice. The voice she used when talking to important people like the teachers at my school, or the mailman that brings her check at the first of the month. “How old is your daughter?” the woman asked. “She turned fourteen a few weeks ago” Mama said. “Your daughter was seventeen weeks pregnant.” “She lost a lot of blood.’’ “We cut her open to remove the dead baby,” she said.
My mind flickered back to reality, and my gaze away from the mirror when I heard the sound of screeching brakes. I turned on the sink faucet, and waited for warm water. I wet one side of a towel to scrub the butter off my belly, and used the other side to damp-dry my skin. I stepped into my blue jeans, and flipped an oversized t-shirt over my head. I ran to the porch just in time to see the dirty yellow bus stop near my house. I spotted the top of Yana’s peanut head. We always sat together on the bus before I was kicked out of school for missing too many days. I heard a flood of hyena laughter echoing out the bus windows. Yana appeared running down the steps. She sprinted across the dirt driveway, and onto the grass patch in front of the porch. “You ok”? I asked. She panted gasping for air. “Someone tripped me,” she cried. Yana sat next to me, threw her books on the ground and propped her feet on top of them. On her right knee was fresh broken skin, overflowing with blood that saturated the bottom of her sunflower dress. I went in the house to find a Band-Aid. I rummaged through the kitchen drawer full of match boxes, bottle openers, and salt and pepper packages. Underneath the debris and gritty roach droppings I found one. I put the Band-Aid, and a box of matches in my pocket.
I helped Yana apply the bandage; pressing my palm across it to make sure it would stick. We sat there together, in the blazing sun. Both of us hurting from something that someone else had done. “The butter did not work”, I said. Yana shrugged her thin brittle shoulders. “Maybe you are stuck with them forever,” she said. It wasn’t long before the sun got too hot for Yana, and I was left alone on the porch.
I find comfort in the sun. I love how it commands the sky. The sun rays beat upon the earth life and death. You cannot escape its path. You can shield under a tree, but its hot flame is still there, no corner untouched. I wish I was that bold and brave. It’s too hot for everyone else, but for me the heat peels away the pain, and evaporates my salted tears. With the sun I am out of sight, and out of mind from my troubles.
“Your daddy died and left me here without a dime to take care of you.” From the porch I could hear Mama staggering around in the kitchen. I heard the refrigerator door open and slam shut. “I am glad you lost the baby”. “Who was going to take care of it?” Mama never speaks good of me. I never heard her speak good of my Daddy either. Uncle Ruben told me that my daddy; his brother; died from a heart attack. I saw an old picture of him once. He was a tall man with distinct broad shoulders. His eyes looked tired. Kind of like Mama’s eyes. I wondered if she would die soon too.
In the heat of the summer Mama coughed up blood in between turning up an amber tinted bottle. I recognized the red Buick pulling up in the dirt driveway stirring up a bunch of dust. A young woman I never seen before stepped out of the passenger side. She was pretty with long model-like legs. Her cotton white dress draped over her shoulders and flowed down just above her knees. She looked fresh as the breeze whirled through the length of her hair. Uncle Ruben walked with her hand in hand to the porch. I gazed up at them but the blaze of the sun burned my pupils. “Hey Chauncey.” “It’s hot!” “Why you out here sitting in the sun?” I had no words for him. No reply. Just silence. “I’m here to check on your Mama,” he shuddered and moved past me to the front door. Beads of anguish boiled at the center of my forehead. The last time I saw Uncle Ruben was a few weeks after I lost the baby. We sat in the living room, while Mama was sleep in her room. He removed his hat and loosened his tie. Normally he would lift my dress, lay me on the couch, and rub his penis in between my legs until my vagina parted for him to enter. We would rock back in forth while I looked at the “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” prayer above me on the wall. I stared at that prayer so many times from that position, that I could close my eyes and still see the words imprinted on my eyelids. But that day, when he lifted my dress, there were no clouds in sight of the sky to block the sun from shedding light on the scars that laden my belly. Uncle Ruben shielded his eyes from the light or from the sight of me. I will never know because he rushed to put his pants back on, grabbed his hat and left.
I pulled the box of matches out of my pocket. I lit one match after another and dropped them in the grass by my feet. I got up from the porch and walked down the dirt driveway towards the mailbox. I felt blazing heat on the back of my neck. I turned towards the house to see the sun, and the fire become one. I thought I was dreaming but the sun was too bright, and the fire too hot to be a dream. The fire burned the house with mama, Uncle Ruben, and that woman in it. The sun gave me the strength to walk away and never turn back.