“I want it, Mummy! Please…please…pleeeeze!”
I pretended that I couldn’t see or hear the little boy sitting across from me in his mother’s lap, squirming and begging to be set free. He’d already broken the child safety harness that was supposed to rein him in. As the plastic toy football sailed past my head yet a third time, I turned up the volume of my MP3 player and tried not to glare at him.
Now, where was that magazine I’d picked up at the airport? I’d better not have lost it. The thing might have cost me three times the regular news stand price. Where do they get off charging that much for a magazine? For that kinda money, the pages had better be edged in gold.
Maybe they were. That article about the rise of black women in the business world looked interesting. I could use some extra pointers to help me get ahead. Recent college graduate, dewy-eyed intern. I felt like I had a FRESH MEAT sign on my back for all the employees at the consulting firm to take advantage of.
…Priye can you deliver this package for me?…
…Priye can you sort and deliver this mail for me?…
Priye this. Priye that.
I was going to be so glad when my internship was over and I could walk through that door as a full-fledged employee.
I opened the magazine to the table of contents, licking my thumb, and leisurely flipped through the pages. The airport monitor said that my flight out of Accra Ghana to Lagos, Nigeria was delayed, so I took my time, letting my eyes scan the pages for articles of interest.
“Now, Kwame. What has mommy told you about whining? You know mommy is very unhappy when you whine.”
Even though I’d turned up the volume, risking permanent eardrum damage, I still heard them, even over the smooth sounds of sultry India Arie jamming in my ears.
“But I want it. I want it now. Please? Please let me have the big bears. Please. Pleeeeze? I promise I won’t ask for anything else.”
The kid begged pretty hard. So I knew what was coming next. The mother had no choice. She was going to crack. My mother used to get that look sometimes, when she’d just about enough of me and my brothers, Dozie and Mike.
Actually, when she’d had enough of them. I was such an angelic child. Never gave her a moment’s peace…I mean problem. Because I was so well behaved as a child, I didn’t understand how Kwame’s mother could tolerate that behaviour. I had no sympathy for her.
Well, not much.
Please, don’t let her look at me. Please, I silently prayed. I didn’t want to see that look of quiet desperation in her eyes.
…Don’t look at her, don’t you dare look at her, Priye Cole…
Oh! Too late. I looked at her. What did I have to do that for? I think she took my sympathetic gaze as permission to allow Kwame to continue to annoy me.
“I promise I won’t ask for anything else.” Kwame pleaded.
“You said that when I bought you that GameBoy that you permanently loaned to your friends, Kwame. And when I bought you those sneakers that are sitting and rotting in the bottom of your toy chest and those disappearing ink markers with all of the caps left off of them. No more toys, Kwame. I mean it this time…”
She sounded tough, shaking her finger at her son, but I don’t think she really meant it. She was going to crack. I could tell by the look in her eyes – somewhere between maternal and murderous instinct. Kwame was going to wear her down until he got what he wanted. Speaking of wants, that was a baaaad suit that sister girl was working in my magazine. I flipped another page to continue the article. Said that she was the CEO of her own interior design business.
That’ll be someday. I just know it. I may be a lowly intern now. But a few more years, impressing the right people, taking on key assignments, and before I can say six-figure salary, I will have one.
I paused in mid-flip when a shadow fell across the page. Without lifting my head, I raised my eyes. I didn’t have to guess who that was. It was the mother, with bratty Kwame not so silently in tow. That must be some kind of record. Two minutes, three, before she went back on her word?
I looked up into two red-rimmed eyes. Either she’d been crying or drinking or badly in need of both. Kwame was tugging on her arm and yelling at the top of his lungs that she never got him anything he wanted. It was soo unfair. And why was she being soo mean to him! And he was going to run away.
I almost laughed out loud. My mother had a saying to bust up our threats to run away. When I’d threatened to do it once when she wouldn’t let me go to some concert for some group that isn’t even in existence anymore, she’d said, “Don’t run, walk. You’ll last longer and you’ll get farther.”
That had certainly put the running fire right out of me.
“Uh…excuse me. I hate to bother you…”
Then why are you? The words were held firmly in check in my mind by pressing my lips together.
“I was wondering…” The woman continued.
“Those bears.” She gestured with her free hand toward the oversized teddy bears sitting on either side of me.
“I want one, mommy!”
“Son, what has mommy told you about interrupting? Do you want me to put you in time out?”
It was on the tip of my tongue to say that if little Kwame had been cutting up that way in front of my mother, there wouldn’t be any time-out business. Uh-uh. No way. It would be time-up and with the business end of a switch.
But these days, you can’t tell people that. You know how funny people get when you try to tell them how to raise their kids. Somebody had better tell this woman that if she lets that little boy put his grubby fingers on my bears just one more time. Just one more time..
“I was wondering about your bears. They’re beautiful. Where’d you get that suit for the papa bear? And those spats on his shoes are simply adorable. Are those real pearls around mama bear’s neck? Kwame! Don’t touch that!”
I cut my eyes just in time to see Kwame pulling at the mama bear’s clutch purse.
“Would you be interested in selling your bears to me? Or one of them?”
“I’m sorry, but they are not for sale,” I said, using my best polite but insistent voice. All the while, I eyeballed the kid. Just as soon as I went back to my magazine, that hairy, freckle-faced spawn of Satan was going to try to make off with one of my bears.
“They’re an anniversary present for my grandparents. I had them custom-made. They’ve been married for sixty years. You understand why I don’t want to sell them, don’t you?” I leaned forward and tried to convince the boy with the reasonableness of my tone.
Kwame was starting to get the idea that he would not get his way this time. His ears perked up as he looked back and forth from his mother to me, then back to his mother again. One of us was going to have to back down, and it wasn’t going to be me.
“Come on, Kwame. Let’s not bother the nice lady anymore.” The woman’s face crumbled.
“Lady, I’ll pay you twice what you paid. Just name your price.”
“They’re not for sale.” My lips were tight. My eyes weren’t smiling.
My mother used to say that when my lip curled up and my eyes squinched up at the corners, I looked wicked. That should have been enough of a warning to make this woman back off.
It wasn’t. She started to rummage around in her oversize bag. She wasn’t going to buy me off. Why didn’t she tell the little hellion to shut up or get his butt wiped?
There was no way my parents would have let this go on for long. All they had to do was give us the look and me and my brothers straightened up and flew right. I could still hear Dozie and Mike’s howls that day after church when mother had warned us to stop passing sweets.
I’d had to watch my back for months after that. Of course they’d insisted that I was the one who’d started it. It didn’t matter. When Mother said no, she meant exactly that.
“I’m sorry. I really can’t. But I can give you the card of the woman who made them for me. She lives here in Accra.”
“But we don’t live here.This is just a stopover for us.”
I shrugged, truly sympathetic. That wasn’t my problem. I didn’t know what else to tell her. It had taken two months and a good chunk out of my earnings to have these bears custom-designed. An intern doesn’t make much to begin with. Even if she offered me three times what I paid for them, I couldn’t sell them. The look on my grandparent’s face when I dragged them through the door at their anniversary party was going to be priceless.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. Hopefully for the last time.
“No, I’m sorry. Sorry to have bothered you.”
“No bother.” I smiled and crossed my fingers underneath the magazine against the little white lie. Okay, big, fat, hairy lie. But I didn’t have the heart to make her feel any worse than she already did.
That little Kwame was a migraine in the making. I wouldn’t have him next to me on this flight for all of the available CEO positions for black women in the world.
There was nobody sitting next to me on this flight. No one was getting near these bears. I’d made sure of that. I’d had to purchase all three seats – row, middle and aisle. A little expensive for a couple of stuffed animals, but it was going to be totally worth it when I saw my grandma’s face. She and I have a contest going.
She’d been collecting teddy bears since she was a little girl. Her sitting room was filled to bursting with every type of bear. None, I’m sure, could compare to this one. I hoped she would like them.
Both bears were just a few inches shorter than I was, and I’m a good five-foot-four in heels. The mother bear was honey brown in colour, with big brown eyes just like my grandmother’s. Her skirt and jacket were bright red, my grandmother’s favorite colour, with a white lace blouse.
Grandpa Bear was taller than Granma bear. I’d had to put a little extra padding around the middle for Grandpa. Everybody knew how Grandpa liked to eat. If I walked up in there with a skinny bear, they’d tell me that I didn’t get my money’s worth. My cousins Joy and Brenda, would tell me that I’d been taken. I’d spent a lot of money for just the weekend trip. One small part of me wondered if it was worth it.
I had to shake myself out of it. Of course it was worth it. I was going back to see my family. I hadn’t been back to Nigeria in a while. Too busy on the job. I guess I didn’t mean to be so out of pocket. Its just those folks on the job never give you a moment’s peace. I hadn’t known being an intern would be so hard. The woman who recruited me right out of the university had made corporate life sound so easy. Looking at my high grades, my extracurricular activities, she’d said it would be like a walk in the park for me.
What park was she talking about? Central Park? Everyday I went to work, I felt like I was being mugged. Not literally – mentally. There are some days when I feel like I can’t do anything right. As soon as I do screw up, as soon as I let down my guard, some pushy upstart wants to grab what’s mine.
Just like little Kwame over there.
“I’m watching you.”
I said it loud enough for his mother to hear. If i found one bear hair out of place, one plucked button eye, one ruffle deflounced I was going straight to Kwame with my size six shoe up against his bare bottom.
That’s right. I said it. I don’t have any love for badass little kids. I can thank my parents for that. They were strict in their raising of us, but we always knew that we were loved. We always knew where the boundaries were.
My daddy says I have an evil streak in me. Maybe I do. I just don’t have time for tantrums and theatrics.
Case in point was that couple standing at the ticket check in counter. Newlyweds, obviously. They were talking loud, smooching, and shamelessly feeling each other up so that everyone knew it, too. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
“I don’t understand how this could happen.” The woman barely complained through her hiccuping sobs. “We made the reservation months ago. What do you mean I don’t have a seat?”
The gate attendant kept her eyes lowered. Her lacquered fingernails over the terminal keyboard.
“It’s all right, honey. Its only a two-hour flight.” Captain was doing his best to console her. It didn’t work. I think she was more interested in letting everyone know how displeased she was than listening to her husband’s pacification.
“But we’re on our honeymoon!” She insisted. “I don’t want to be separated.”
“Oh, deal with it,” I muttered under my breath and rolled my eyes. I didn’t want to be unsympathetic, but we all had issues with the airlines. Longer lines, restrictions on carry-on luggage, tighter security. It was the price we paid for the convenience of being able to travel the country at will.
I didn’t know what the big deal was all about. We were a few hours sitting apart when they wrre going to have their whole lives together? Maybe she knew something that he didn’t. Maybe she didn’t expect it to last. She might have something there.
They looked like a pair made in heaven. But just because they looked good together didn’t mean they needed to be together.
Speaking of one of the beautiful people…
I paused in midflick, midflip of a page. I must have looked silly, my thumb hanging in midair, my tongue picking out between my lips. It wasn’t easy looking cool and sophisticated when the equivalent of an African-American Adonis graced your presence.
Presence and grace. That’s exactly what he epitomized.