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Expert In All Styles by I.O Echeruo

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Expert In All Styles by I.O Echeruo

Late in the afternoon of one of the coldest days in October, my wife left our single-family house in Silver Springs, a suburb of Washington D.C. She was on her way to Baltimore-Washington International to catch a plane that would carry her (or so it seemed to me at the time) on a hasty, ill-considered commitment to a different life in Lagos, Nigeria.

It was planned – and the plan was principally my wife’s – that I was to follow in two months when our sons were out of school, and she had completed arrangements at the primary school they would be attending in Lagos.

I pulled her two black clamshell suitcases downstairs, over the light-brown carpeted staircase, through the purple front door, dragging them along the frozen concrete of the thin sidewalk, flanked on either side by icy blades of green grass.

Lifting the suitcases into the cavernous trunk of the Ford Crown Victoria, I was struck by how light they were and, oddly, by the aggressive cleanliness of the dark-grey industrial carpet that lined the taxi’s trunk.

I had planned to give my wife a long kiss at parting. I meant it as a gesture, a promise on my part of openness, willing to part as one who had laid aside, at least temporarily, his misgivings and the arguments and bile spawned by the life change she was imposing on us, her family.

But after I slammed close the Crown Vic’s trunk, I found that my wife had already settled herself in the back seat, and the taxi’s door was shut against her.

I slowed down and then stopped, standing on the empty street, when I saw she was blowing me a kiss through the large car’s back window. As the cab pulled away from the curb, I reciprocated the gesture, my warm breath appearing before me like cigarette smoke in the cold air. When the cab reached the traffic light at the end of the street, I knew it would be another left on Geneva Avenue and then the on-ramp to Interstate 95 and, from there, a direct route to BWI.

As I stood on that lonely street, watching the Crown Vic’s back lights’ red glow in the distance, I was weighed down by a consciousness of wasted effort. A lot of energy had been expended so that I could be there when my wife left our home. There were patient appointments cancelled or rescheduled, a rushed laparoscopy in the office, and last-minute arrangements for coverage of a radical hysterectomy I was scheduled to perform at Holy Cross. Principally, the effort was that of Becky Wehestrom, my unsentimental, competent practice manager.

I had an hour-till 5.30 p.m.- before I would return to my usual routine. As on every other weekday, at that time, I would leave work to get our boys at the after-school daycare, driving them through traffic past the Piney Branch Shopping Center, where, on those evenings when the idea of rewarming chicken fajitas or grilling sea bass overwhelmed me (or on those days when my younger son insisted that the boys were entitled to a treat), I would stop, pulling up to the drive-through window at Boston market or Pizza Hut for a take-out meal.

As the boys came crashing through the purple door, one around the other and made their way to the bar stools around the kitchen island where we had all our meals, the rules were simple.

The first rule: Homework first. So while I warmed Special Fried Rice and sizzled up burgers from frozen patties, they worked on long division and social studies. (On take-out evenings, homework was approached with slurps of mountain Dew and pepperoni slices.)

The second, a rule against which they were in constant rebellion, required a bath every night. None of their friends, I would constantly be reminded, had to take a bath at night. It was a position from which I could not be moved, the holdover of a childhood in Nigeria, where the relentless heat and humidity of the day had elevated the evening bath into a fundamental act of hygiene and civilisation.

So I carry Ebitu, my six-year-old boy, into the large bathtub, pour water gathered in a repurposed Tupperware plastic container over his head, lather his hair and body with Irish Spring bath gel and then scrub him with a square wash towel.

Ebitu’s eight-year-old brother prefers to take a shower. He walks into the bathroom with a towel tied around his waist, looks over to his brother, covered head to foot in soap suds, and says: “You look like an alien.” And sweet Ebitu smiles and tries to open his eyes to see, pops close one eye and zaps his brother with an imaginary laser gun. Ebitu and I laugh loudly at his brother’s death dance.

The boys are accustomed to their mother’s absences – to attend medical conferences, do field studies, and lobby bureaucrats in Delhi, Dar es Salaam and Bangkok. The travel is a requirement of her international health career.

It was not until I was drying Ebitu’s hair that he mentioned her, peeking from under a thick towel to ask, “How many days are left before mummy can come home?”

Clean, changed into flannel pyjamas, smelling of fragrant soap, the boys settle in the den for the hour (or so) of television they are allowed each school day. They record programs on TIVO, stored for this hour.

I have a palpable, almost acute, need to be physically close to my sons. I hug and hold them whenever we are in the same room. I leave the desk in the den and settle beside them on the couch while, half-minded, I review notes in the patient files I’ve brought home. Gathered around me, in the surprising, singular silence that television induces in young children, they watch an animated boy-superhero with a magic ring.

I am a devoted but insecure father. I have no sense of what I want to impart to my sons; no sense of what it should mean to them that I am their father.

***

I remember that the night my wife first mentioned the job in Nigeria we were lying in bed. I was reading a commando novel and she was on her laptop reading emails.

She described the position – as head of a new institute (amply funded by a hedge fund billionaire) dedicated to changing female health care outcomes in Nigeria – as a dream job. The pay tripled that of her current position and with the perks and allowances, she assured me, we would more than double our joint income. It was, she said to me, apparently without irony, the job she was born to do.

My wife achieved some early fame from the success of her first, and only, book: “Politics and Diseases of Women in Africa.” A slimmed-down, colloquial version of her master’s thesis, the book’s primary argument was that the critical pathogen in the appalling disease rates in women in Africa is the skewed gender politics of that continent.

The objections, my objections, were delivered in hastily organised ambushes, as she made plans. What about the boys? What about my practice? Why do we have to move to another country? Neither one of us has lived in Nigeria in fifteen years!

Eventually, the objections began to appear, even to myself, hollow and shrill. And one evening, within the pretext of providing reasoned alternatives, I gave voice to my deep, unstated desire and asked, rather parenthetically: “You’re a qualified physician. Why don’t you open a practice or join a practice? We could double our income. There would be no travel and we would not have to move to god-forsaken Nigeria.”

In that moment, her face lost its characteristic, ever-present air of cheerful amusement. “You are asking me to give up my dreams, to give up what matters most to me,” she said.


About the book: Expert In All Styles explores the complex and often painful struggles of individuals with desire, despair, and hope within the social constructs of contemporary Nigeria. The twelve stories in the collection range in setting and tone – from the joys of a family excursion in Maiduguri to an American-Nigerian family’s return to Lagos. Expert In All Styles is a thoughtful, incisive collection with memorably-drawn characters whose lives are as universal as they are particular.

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