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The wedding between Adanna Njoku and Matthew Okoro was the most anticipated event of the year at the Exalted Church of God, especially since there had been a drought of weddings of late.
As the bride proceeded down the aisle in her dusky red lipstick and elaborate headdress, all the mothers in the congregation were plotting an even more elaborate event for their own daughters. They were envisioning white doves, loudspeakers blaring traditional music, vigorous dancing, sweet food, and an abundance of both cold and hot drinks. Mrs. Olamide reflected on what Adanna Njoku had done properly to arrive at this moment as she approached the podium. Adanna was humble but not overly demure. She could speak her mind in a spirited conversation about the greed of the oil companies back home in Nigeria. She cooked her jollof rice sweet but not too spicy. And when she genuflected to show respect to her elders, her right knee always kissed the ground. Mrs. Olamide glanced at her daughter, Lola, out of the corner of her eye. Lola still had a long way to go in that regard. Lola didn’t like to stay in the kitchen and learn how to cook, and she spoke back more times than she held her tongue.
The bride and her family were new to the church, Mrs. Olamide noted. They had recently immigrated from Nigeria and ingratiated themselves into the culture of the congregation. Adanna’s mother went to the workers’ meeting each week and had ascended to the status of an usher. She distributed flyers during the service and was selective with the offering envelopes. Those with deep pockets got their offering envelopes right away and those who sometimes looked the other way when the basket was passed around were forced to flag her down. Mrs. Njoku’s smiles were reserved for the elders and the select echelon of church royalty that she escorted to the front row each Sunday morning. Despite her performance of dutiful servant, Mrs. Olamide had it on authority that Mrs. Njoku could not pay her tithe in full and so made up for this deficiency with her volunteer work.
The family of the groom was a different story altogether. Sister Sheba Okoro was head of the women’s group, women’s convention group, and organised all the dramas at Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter. She feverishly sought out the latest designs in Nigerian fashion and carried herself like the Head Overseer. Though her voice dripped with saccharine confidence, her tongue was sharp when she corralled the children into Sunday school. There was no business or happenings in the church that Sister Sheba was not privy to. Occasionally she would pass on unsavoury tidbits of news to the pastor as she deemed appropriate. The pastor had no choice but to heed her counsel. He was deeply grateful that Sister Sheba had taken over the assortment of complex tasks and managerial positions that the other women in the church had eschewed but were necessary to create an undercurrent of enthusiasm in an otherwise rigid environment. Sister Sheba had noticed Adanna almost immediately when she joined the congregation and identified her as a suitable match for her son.
When the bride and groom finally reached the apex of their journey, the congregation dutifully averted their eyes as the pair faced each other. They occupied their minds with what they hoped would follow the union, the expanding midsection, the baby dedication ceremony, and the wild children running up and down the aisles whom they would view as a reflection of a young mother’s inability to discipline her kids.
A clatter drew their gazes to the rear of the church. Sister Sheba’s younger son had arrived just in time for his brother’s wedding. He appeared unkempt and ignorant of his appearance. A transformation had been taking place in him that they all ignored out of respect for his mother. Everyone watched as Sister Sheba’s painted eyebrow jumped out of place before marching back into its correct position. Lola watched Joshua even after everyone else had turned their gazes back to the ceremony.
Sister Olamide noticed her daughter’s attention lapse. She allowed herself to entertain the union for a moment, but the thought of having Sister Sheba as a sister-in-law was mildly unbearable.
“What’s the time?” she asked Lola.
Lola broke her stare to check her phone. “It’s 9:00 a.m., Mom.” She was wondering why her mother couldn’t check her own phone.
The church wedding lasted longer than it should have, and the congregation was consequently late to the reception. The Olamides were the exception. They arrived early because they were planning to leave early. The location was not to Sister Olamide’s taste. She found that the lace tablecloths did little to conceal the cheap corkboard tables. Further, Mr. Olamide was beginning to grumble that he was hungry, and the food had yet to arrive. Sister Olamide rose to help warm the food over the gas burners when it finally made it to the party. She noticed Lola did not follow her.
This was because Lola had drifted outside to the balmy parking lot where those that were too young to break kola nut and too old to run around like untamed spirits had congregated. When they were still in Sunday School, they had learned rhymes together and recited Bible passages because it is what everyone else had done. Now they had arrived at an age where they had to decide whether to continue to do what was expected of them or to become distinct human beings. This decision was easier for young men; their sins were more readily forgiven.
Joshua was passing a flask amongst his friends when Lola approached.
Lola made a gesture that was intended to accept the flask, but she decided halfway through that she didn’t want it after all. “How does it feel to have a new sister-in-law?” she asked.
Joshua eyed her. He had inherited his mother’s disdain. “Feels like he’s a sell-out. I expected him to hold out a little while longer.”
His friends erupted in laughter. From the moment he had first opened his mouth, he had always commanded an audience.
Lola didn’t know what to say. “Adanna seems cool,” she concluded. She didn’t know the bride well, but no one knows a good woman well.
“So you’re off to college this fall?” Joshua said, taking another swig. His gaze was aimed somewhere a few centimetres above her head. “Where did you finally decide?”
“Princeton,” she muttered.
“Why don’t you say it louder? Shouldn’t you be proud?”
She shrugged. She didn’t mention the rejection letter from the Parsons School of Design that she kept under her pillow.
“Do you want to see my brother’s wedding gift?” he continued. He pulled out of his phone and showed her an intricate drawing of his brother and his newly wedded wife. It was rendered with a human eye that saw colours and textures that no one else did. The picture had gathered thousands of likes on social media.
“Do you know what it feels like to do what you love?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I’ve been toying with the idea of free will.”
The crew had wandered away. Lola and Joshua found themselves in a secluded part of the parking lot. The sun was lazing on the horizon, orange-yellow light crisscrossing with shadows on concrete.
“Take my brother Matthew for an example. He dumped his long-term Italian girlfriend at the end of college cause Mom didn’t approve. And when he was flunking his law school classes, she used to go through flashcards with him on the phone all night. She even helped him write his vows last night. One day he’ll wake up and realise his life is not his own.”
Lola had never thought about who owned a life before.
“I’m thinking of opening a painting studio where people can come have an easel on their dinner table, sip some wine, and think about art.”
“It would be nice to think about art,” Lola agreed.
“Yeah, ’cause we use art at church when we sing, dance, or act dramas, and then we leave all of that on the altar.”
Joshua took a small step towards her that felt much closer. The molecules in the air were accelerating more quickly now, bouncing off of each other and creating something new. “How many people are plotting our trip to the altar right now?”
Sister Olamide appeared suddenly with spoon in hand. “Lola, come and help me serve the food.”
Sister Sheba was there as well. She placed a hand on her son’s shoulder. “The family dance is about to start.”
“The wedding was beautiful,” Sister Olamide said to Sister Sheba, a smile stretching across her face like a well-starched piece of gele.
Sister Sheba nodded in agreement. She was thinking that she hadn’t seen Sister Olamide’s face in the women’s meeting or Lola at the youth prayer summit in quite some time. As far as she was concerned, the Olamide family was wayward.
“We thank God,” Sister Sheba said. She turned her son in direction of the building.
“God is good,” answered Sister Olamide. “Let’s go help with the food,” she instructed Lola. In a lower voice, she advised her daughter. “Now is not the time to get distracted. You know the plans we have for you.”
At church the next week, Joshua found Lola just as she was putting on her jacket at the conclusion of the service.
“Greetings, Mr. and Mrs. Olamide. I just wanted to inform you we have a youth prayer meeting on Saturdays at 6:00 p.m. Is it possible for Lola to attend?”
Sister Olamide saw this as a way to atone for her continued absence from the women’s meeting. She always told herself she would attend the next meeting, but a new excuse presented itself each week. She did not like to mix with the other women outside of church and thought a weekly Sunday service was sufficient to fulfil her religious obligations.
“Yes, of course Lola can attend. As long as she finishes all her activities before going.”
Lola started to protest, but something in Joshua’s gaze stopped her short. He slipped her an offering envelope with his number scrawled on it when her parents’ backs were turned.
Later that night, he texted her. “Please wear something more interesting than your Sunday outfits.”
Lola couldn’t concentrate on her classes or her afterschool violin lessons, dance rehearsals, or soccer practices. Suddenly, she was deeply dissatisfied with the conversations at lunch about finding a college roommate or the perfect date to prom. When Saturday arrived, she dressed in a sleeveless cream turtleneck and leather pants with her favourite heeled boots and made her way to the address that Joshua had texted her.
Sister Olamide observed Lola closely as she pulled out of the driveway in the family Jeep. She had been young once, being young could derail many carefully laid plans.
The group meeting was being held in a community hall. From the outside of the building, music boomed from loudspeakers and multicoloured lights flashed from the window.
She texted Joshua to ask if she was in the right location. Moments later, he flung open the door open and called to her. “Lola, what do you mean is this the right place? Of course, this is the right place. Welcome to AKC.”
He took her arm and ushered her into the throbbing Afrobeats music. The hall was thick with smoke and damp with sweat molecules. Lola coughed once, and then twice. “AKC?” She recognised a few others from church. There was Jessi who always dressed like she was going to the club, Robert napping on a couch like he did during Bible study, and the twins Sade and Toni synchronously performing one of the latest Nigerian dances.
Joshua grinned at her, his face exuberant with pride. “AKC. African Kids Club. This is where we come to process our generational trauma.”
Jessi made her way over to them. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Joshua. This is the last person you should have thought about inviting. She’s going to blab to her parents.”
Joshua shoved Robert off the couch and made space for them to sit. “Maybe. And maybe not.”
They drank, feasted on pizza and wings, and danced to music under the cover of disco lights. Lola tended to her whisky and Coke all night and tried to find a group she could join as Joshua flitted from person to person.
At half-past ten, Joshua turned down the music and stood atop an overturned speaker. “Quiet, quiet, you animals. Welcome to this week’s AKC meeting. What’s on the agenda for tonight?”
Sade waved a crumpled list of paper. “Dues!”
“Does everyone have their dues?” Joshua demanded.
“It’s just like Sister Sheba’s son to be asking for dues,” Robert shouted, to rapturous laughter.
“When was the last time your family contributed to any of the welfare funds? It’s just like Sister Sheba’s son to know everyone’s business, too.”
“I don’t think Lola has paid her dues,” Jessi pointed out.
“She’s new,” said Joshua. “She doesn’t even know what we’re about.”
Lola felt their eyes on her. She stammered. “I thought this was a prayer meeting.”
Another peal of laughter, slightly unhinged at the midnight hour.
Joshua looked almost motherly. He stepped down from his pedestal and threw an arm around her shoulder. “This is paradise; this is where every misunderstood African kid buckling underneath the weight of their parents’ expectations can come to escape. However, there is a price.”
“$5,000 to enter the club,” Jessi said.
“Where do you expect me to get that kind of money? And what do you even do with all that money?”
“We help people get out of the life,” Robert chimed in. “Just last month, we paid for Toni’s first year of cosmetology school. And we hope to open up Joshua’s Paint and Sip spot by the end of next year.”
“You didn’t answer my question about where you’re getting this money.”
An eerie silence fell. “We get it how we get it,” said Jessi. “If you can’t hang, then it’s no problem. Carry your stuff and go.”
They concluded the meeting by promoting their various projects, whether it was art, music, or baked goods. Then the music was turned back up to an intermediate level.
“So what do you think?” Joshua asked as Lola was getting ready to leave. She turned to find him leaning in the doorway.
“I’ll be back next week.”
Lola had less than $2,000 saved in her banking account from gifts from family and friends over the years. Her college fund was untouchable. As the next week approached, she found her opportunity when her father left his wallet with the checking book on the kitchen table. He had gone into the garage to gossip with one of his friends about how a third friend was broke. She wrote herself a check and tucked it into her pocket.
He smiled when he came back. “Mr. Roger’s daughter is going to be going to Princeton as well. You girls should connect and be roommates.”
“That would be great, Dad.”
Once her dues were paid in full, the group opened their arms wide to accept her in. They played the latest Afrobeats, argued about who was the biggest artist in Nigeria, and whether they were more Nigerian or American. The group did not only meet on Saturdays, but dropped in throughout the week whenever they were free. Lola found herself skipping a rehearsal there, an occasional soccer practice, and a couple recitals just to make time to be at AKC.
Lola came over one afternoon to several packed suitcases lined up at the front door.
“We don’t often like to do this,” Joshua was announcing to the scattered group. “But sometimes we don’t have a choice.”
“I’m running out of time,” Jessi said. She was sitting alone on the couch and looked small in her Chanel jumpsuit.
“What’s going on?” Lola whispered to one of the twins.
“Jessi is catching a flight to California tonight,” said Sade.
“And she hasn’t told anyone,” Toni added.
They each loaded a suitcase into the trunk of the taxi when it arrived. Joshua looked a little too gleeful to watch Jessi go. He was standing outside with a glass of clear vodka mixed with water long after the car had disappeared around the bend. His lone figure reminded Lola of a streetlight that only switched on when darkness descended.
The church responded with appropriate uproar. There were several missing posters dramatically taped to the front doors. Each Sunday service, the pastor opened with a prayer hoping to bring Jessi back into the fold. He even titled one of the services “Prodigal Daughter.” Joshua always stood straight with his legs spread a shoulder’s width apart during these services. He sat in one of the front rows so Lola would focus on the resolute shape of his ears or the plaintive embrace of his intertwined hands. She knew he would never waver.
Once, Joshua accepted the pastor’s request to lead the youth prayer on finding Jessi. Lola had difficulty looking at Jessi’s parents during the prayer. Jessi’s mother overdressed in fur coats and red-bottomed heels just like her daughter. Her father wore discreet thousand-dollar suits. They seemed like the type of parents that unintentionally neglected their children. These days, they were clutching their small pompously dressed son a little closer.
“Please,” Jessi’s mother pleaded with the congregation. “If you have any information about my missing daughter, please call me or leave me a note. I won’t hold it against you.”
Mrs. Olamide asked Lola the next afternoon what she knew about Jessi’s disappearance. Lola was on her way to AKC and told her as much. “We are holding a special prayer session to bring Jessi back.”
Lola found Joshua alone on the couch sipping from an opaque cup. She felt a strange excitement knowing she wouldn’t have to share him with anyone else.
His eyes were flat when they landed on her. “What are you doing here?”
“I just thought I would drop by.” She didn’t say what she wanted to say, how the attendance at AKC had dwindled since Jessi had gone. Or how her absence gnawed at them. His creation had become something bigger than he could have anticipated, and she couldn’t tell whether it was his own free will or the absence of it that was at fault.
“This isn’t like school, Lola. You don’t get extra points for perfect attendance.”
“This is the only place where I feel like myself,” Lola said. “Like the real me.”
“Are you here for you or for me?” He jumped on her hesitation. “You’re trading one identity for another. You just need someone to tell you what to do and how to think. You still haven’t learned anything.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Then prove it. Email Princeton and tell them you’re not coming. Do it right now where I can see you.”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Do it, or don’t come back.” His tone softened. “Sade showed me your designs. She told me what happened with Parsons. You can work on your portfolio and apply again.”
Several weeks later, Lola came home to a thick envelope from Princeton that her parents were sitting at the kitchen table to read. Her father also had a letter from the bank.
Mrs. Olamide didn’t look upset; instead she appeared thoughtful. She belonged to a new generation of parents that was trying to be better than their own parents. “We are going over to Sister Sheba’s house to hear both sides of this situation,” she said.
Lola tried her best to protest but found herself in the back seat of the family Jeep. They arrived at Sister Sheba’s house. Her house was slightly larger than their own home, which Mr. Olamide noted begrudgingly.
“What a pleasant surprise,” said Sister Sheba once she opened the door. Sister Sheba was wearing heavy eye makeup and a sleek, straightened wig.
Mr. Olamide’s tone had not cooled during the car ride. “Please bring your son down here. We need to talk about how he has been corrupting my daughter’s life.”
As Lola expected, Joshua was not home. Sister Sheba got him on the phone and yelled that he should come home immediately and explain himself. Joshua staggered in with his shirt looking dishevelled and his eyes half-glazed. Lola saw him in the same light that her parents were scrutinising him now. She saw that he didn’t have the answers that she thought he did.
His eyes focused more when he saw Lola and her parents in the sitting room. “I thought this might happen.”
“Where are you coming from, Joshua? Why are you looking so shabby?” Sister Sheba said in a shrill tone of voice.
“I’m coming from youth prayer group, Mom. We went to dinner afterwards to celebrate Toni’s valedictorian status.”
“Okay, please arrange yourself and come back downstairs.”
He scrubbed himself well and came back to a more amicable gathering. Peanuts and cool drinks were being passed around. They had almost forgotten the subject of the occasion.
“So what is this I’m hearing about my son?” Sister Sheba broached.
“We’ve received a letter that Lola is no longer attending Princeton in the fall. And overnight, I’ve noticed that $5,000 has disappeared from my account. Lola has never done anything like this before. This all started this summer when she started attending your son’s prayer group. Not to mention that missing girl.”
Sister Sheba blinked multiple times. “Why don’t you ask Lola to explain herself?”
They all stared at Lola.
“I have been thinking for a long time that I do not want to go to Princeton. I’ve always wanted to go to fashion school.”
“No,” Mr. Olamide said. “There are no jobs in fashion. You know that we have put every penny we’ve earned in America into your training. If you don’t succeed, we won’t be able to retire.”
Joshua crossed his legs in an agreeable manner. “I wonder what your thoughts on free will are, Mr. Olamide. We’re all intellectuals here.”
“My son is right. Your daughter is free to make decisions of her own. I have to confess, I’m more inclined to believe that Lola is the wayward one. She’s never attended prayer group before. My son created this group on his own, I have nothing to do with it.”
Mr. Olamide’s forehead started throbbing. He shook a finger at Joshua. “This was all your handiwork! She has never disobeyed or stolen from us before. Not until she started hanging around with you.”
“Mom, have I ever disobeyed you or stolen from you?” Joshua wanted to know.
“Never, not once,” Sister Sheba said with fire. “Please, my friends, it’s getting late.” She pointed to the door with her chin. “You ought to be going home.”
Joshua escorted them to the door like the dutiful son he was. Lola was the last one outside of the door. “Will you remember me fondly? I encouraged you to do what you didn’t have the audacity to do.”
“And in doing so, you became the thing that you hate the most,” Lola returned. “I wonder how free you truly are.”
As she sat in the backseat of the family Jeep, she thought about the new application to Parsons tucked underneath her pillow, the red hot tips of the back of her father’s ears, and her mother’s bewilderedness. She thought about the plans they had for her curling away from the tail of the car like a world-weary sigh from the exhaust pipe, away into the air from which it had come.