Lost Connection by Aisha Oredola Kayode
I do not want to open my eyes. When you know the mess you have made, the gravity of it and the consequences, you want your eyes shut until some extraterrestrial force helps wipe the mess clean like it never happened. Me being in my sister’s room makes this all the more complicated for me.
The insomnia dealt with me last night and I had to snuggle up to Iman to get some sleep. Being around her is so easy. The four-year difference between us isn’t a wide gap that needs closing. It is filled with love. I wish our parents could see that Iman isn’t the difficult one. If anything, I am, but Iman is the one they are afraid of, the one who has their focus. Her dangerous good looks, intellect and audacity – exactly like our mother was at her age – scares them. They are certain she is going to fall into the same trap life set for my mother so they choke her with protection.
She had been warm, asked me to use her bathroom for a quick shower – oh that shower calmed my nerves – and offered me milk. I dried up my body using a spare towel, put on a nightdress of hers at her insistence. Her room felt as if peace were a place. She was on a call with Kawther, our chatty, attention-hungry cousin, for a stretch of painful minutes while I gulped down some milk. Their conversation on speaker was more of a lecture where Iman was the lecturer and Kawther the deaf student, uttering her indifference.
I was tired of this. I wanted Iman to myself. Later, I asked what exactly they were talking about around 1:41AM because after listening for minutes, it wasn't clear. They were using codes and obscure phrases. Iman shot me a quizzical look, folded her arms and asked why I sounded like Mum when it wasn’t even a guy she was on phone with. We laughed over this, talked about random things, recited Kursiyy and some dua, and turned on our sides to sleep. I think I drifted into sleep faster.
Now, I wake up and this? The only good thing is that Iman isn’t here to see this mess. Alhamdulillah, that she is an early riser. She turns twenty-one in a few days and has had the same habits she developed as a teenager. The girl is way ahead of me.
I press my palms on my sides to reduce the demonic pain of the cramps but all my mind can do is place me in an endless spinning loop where the pain increases with every minute. I can compare this feeling to a dozen otherworldly things and still not have words for it. That’s what menstrual pain does, it overwhelms you. Seriously, the lining of the uterus every month has to be this dramatic? Not every female has the same experience. Iman doesn’t feel pain, just severe discomfort during her periods. I am enraged about the cramps but devastated that my period came unexpectedly and five days earlier.
“This is not happening to me.” My palms cover my face in sheer horror. I am cautious; I even have a calendar app that tracks my period. That proves useless now. The room feels small and stuffy all of a sudden. Cleaning myself up, and washing the bedspread before she’s back in the room should be my move right away.
I peek to see how bad it is. The white bedspread is stained deep red beneath me. Her bedspread isn’t the only white item in this room. She is obsessed! Even the frame of the rectangular mirror that rests boldly opposite her wardrobe is white. She says white symbolizes strength; that it represents us, how we are vulnerable, how we get stained but still dare to exist regardless of the dirt the world throws at us. If something isn’t white in here, then it is cream.
Without my glasses, I squint to see the wall clock, but Iman barges in, her eyes unstable and searching the entire room. A stabbing pain courses through my head that I have to grip it before speaking in a calculated manner.
“Salam alaykum sis.”
Weirdly, she doesn’t reply. Iman always replies to the teslim.
“Sis, are you okay?”
Maybe she didn’t count it as a question.
“Iman!” Her name. I can hear our mum call. She feigns not hearing.
Lamenting, she opens this drawer and that, then kneels to see what’s beneath the bed. From her cluster of mumbling angry words, I pick up something about independence and overprotection but stay glued to the bed so she won’t notice I’ve stained it.
“Iman! We aren’t done down here!” Mum is furious.
“Have you seen my car keys?”
“No, but sis, mum is-”
“Ugh!” She flings her tote bag to one corner of the room and covers her face in her hands. “I’m sure I kept them right here, right here.” She points to the top of her bedside fridge. I just want Iman to leave so I can clean up this mess.
“Iman!” Our mum is still yelling downstairs. Iman rushes to the door, locks it, resumes her frenetic search for her car keys. When I’m about to question her, the pain rushes to me with a force that I don’t expect. I let out a moan while pressing my lower abdomen in a futile attempt to suppress it. Menstrual cramps should not happen to anyone.
“Are you okay?” She sounds like she has dropped everything concerning herself for me.
“Cramps.” Groaning, I bend until I'm in between bending and standing and take slow steps to the bathroom. She follows me.
“I want to throw up.” I weakly say and turn on the tap so I can at least wash my face. It doesn’t help at all but it’s a brief distraction. My mouth is wide open in preparation to puke but it is futile; the nausea comes and goes. Now I feel like a swordsman is using my lower back to sharpen his sword's edge.
I feel Iman’s soft hands hold my shoulders gently.
“You'll need a shower, a pad and new clothes, Niyah”, she says and I know she’s going to get the things she just mentioned. I hear her quick footsteps in the room. She must’ve seen the stain by now.
Iman's name has been bouncing into the room and now, on the bathroom walls. If she was in trouble before, she is in double trouble now. I’m in too much pain to ask her any questions. Turning to my left, I see Iman hand a pack of fresh underwear and sanitary pads to me, with seven pieces. “Help yourself. The panties are new.”
“Thank you.” Words leaving my mouth feel like serious torture to every cell in my body.
“It's nothing.” She turns to leave. “Don't worry about the stain. You’re in no condition to wash. I’ll pack it up and handle it, okay?”
Iman’s love for me always stuns me afresh. When I’m done, I manage to ask her why Mum keeps yelling her name and why she is looking for her car keys.
“I just need to leave this house ASAP.”
“What did you do?”
My eyes roll to the bedside fridge and back to my sister. “What happened sis?”
“Look, Niyah, just rest.” She scowls. She must have had another argument with our Mum and me asking her to explain has put a bad taste in her mouth. “You'll find out soon anyway. Mum won’t stop talking about it. She takes one small issue and talks about it for all eternity until another seems good enough to pick up.”
I swallow two tablets of paracetamol and gulp down some water from the glass Iman handed me. Her room feels like mine. That she doesn’t act possessive with her stuff or space makes me comfortable. Iman has always drawn me to her for as long as I can remember. Only someone not in their right sense of mind would want that tight bond to slacken.
I hear Iman's Yoruba name, Ololanimi, echo from down the stairs. Mum shouts it again. Louder this time. Repeatedly. There is no room for Iman to answer and I know that whenever she calls her this way, it’s something heavy, something bad. My eyes sneak a peek at Iman. She doesn’t even flinch.
My mother has reached the door and the loud knocks are deafening. Iman fumbles with herself for a couple of seconds then she decides to open it. The door opens in such a frightening way that I jerk backwards.
“I have been yelling your name since! Are you now deaf?” Mum looks angrier than I’ve ever seen . “I still need an explanation! What were these doing in your bag?” She throws some items at Iman. Like small packs of something. I’m squinting from the bed to see what they are.
“They’re not mine.” My sister folds her arms, looks away without moving an inch from her standing position. She’s ready for the consequences of her attitude, I can tell. It’s a quick switch from how soft she has been with me.
“Answer me! I’m talking to you!”
“I gave you an answer, Mum. The same answer I gave downstairs. They’re not mine.” She doesn’t raise her voice.
“They’re condoms, Iman! Condoms!”
Iman stands to face our mum. “But they’re not-”
“Whose are they then? I want answers. Now!”
Iman opens her mouth again in an effort to speak but my mum dives into the next question almost immediately, ignoring me the whole time as she paces the room, astonished. “Have you started having sex?”
“No! For Allah’s sake!” I have never heard my sister raise her voice at our mum. This is a first. “I am not you!” Her tone is heavy with all the emotions she hid for years.
In a flash, this coming scene happens before me in a frightening way. Mum darts at Iman to strike her face hard. The sound pushes me to hug the pillow tight. Iman falls sideways until her left hip hits the floor. I see her glistening eyes and shiver at what this means. Without being hit, she was already distant from Mum. The passive aggression, lectures and proverbial insults came but she had never been physically hurt by Mum, who boasted of having enviable parenting skills and rang the hadith in our ears that it was absolutely wrong to hit anyone’s face.
My mother, partly fuming, partly confused, coats her conflicting feelings in lack of regret and roots herself in one place authoritatively, as if to show that she has no regrets. Iman buries her face in her hands. Her sobs are shaking the entire room. I’m on the bed, deliberating, unnoticed.
“I don’t think they’re hers.” My lips part for my mouth to utter.
Iman rises, one hand on her cheek, breathing uncontrollably.
Mum directs her piercing gaze at me for a fleeting period, then back to Iman.
“Stay out of this Niyah.”
“But I don’t think-”
“Then whose are they? And is that why she thinks she can insult me?”
Iman raises her hand to stop me from speaking. “You’ve always been so afraid that I will end up like you. After all I’m the child you had with dad when he wasn’t ready to go the halal way with you. A child of zina, right? You compare me with Kawther because you think she’s better off morally, Islamically.” I follow her gesticulations closely. “Mum, please I want that notion to stop. I’m not in a haram relationship, not having sex yet, not trying to get pregnant before I get married. Stop treating me like a prostitute every minute of the day. Please.”
“Iman is right.” I chip in. My comment is ignored by both. Perhaps I whispered it and it was not heard.
“You search my bag, my phone, my car, my room, everything about me, everyday. You don’t trust me.”
“H-How can I trust you when you behave so cold and distant? When I try to reach out but you always withdraw yourself? When I check your bag and see condom packs? Some of which have been emptied? Whose are they?”
“Kawther’s.” Iman sighs. “She has an addiction problem. Alcohol, weed, sex…”
“That’s not possible!”
“You’d rather believe your niece’s facade than the truth?” She throws her arms in the air, almost giving up. “Mum, I didn’t want to tell you. I want her to quit these things, see a therapist. She has been living a double life but tells me a few things and anytime she comes to visit us, like last weekend, she leaves traces of her stuff.”
Iman explains that Kawther dumped the condoms in her car. When she saw them, she was going to dispose of them, and that’s why she put them in her bag and forgot.
Mum holds her hands in her head. I know she wants to apologize and make things right with Iman. What I don’t expect is for her to dash at Iman to wrap her in her arms. “I’m so sorry, my baby. I’m so sorry.” She runs her fingers through Iman’s twists. “You look and act a lot like me when I was your age. I have been living in fear that you’ll make my mistakes too.” She pushes Iman’s shoulders backwards a bit to examine her face with her hands tracing the outline then embraced her tighter. “And you’re not a child of fornication. You’re your own person. That tag has nothing to do with you. It was my slip. Your father’s slip. It was three years after that we got married but it has nothing to do with you. Don’t be so distant from me, baby, please. I love you. I love you so much.”
“I love you too... I just want your trust Mum.”
“I promise you’ll have it. I promise.”
“And we have to find a way to help Kawther.”
“We will In Sha Allah.”
I’ve never seen our mum so vocal and Iman so free. I feel left out so I try to get up. The sharp pain pierces my being, as if it was waiting for me to dare to make a move. “Ah!”
“Niyah! Are you okay?” Mum acknowledges my presence.
“Menstrual cramps.” I blurt out.
Smiling, Mum holds Iman by her hand and they walk over to me. She raises my jaw with her fingers only to look away and interlock her fingers. This way she looks vulnerable, younger, small. “I’m sorry Niyah for not giving you the attention you deserve all this time.” But I like it. This is the side to my mother that I have always craved. Her relationship with us has been smudged by seeing us as reflections of herself instead of just us. Now the connection we lost is coming back.
“That too will change, my love. I promise.” I feel her hand on my shoulder just as Iman hands me a cup of warm water which she mixed from the dispenser, and I’ve never felt more assured.