Social Interaction
    Sefi Atta
I saw her lips first, pink and pushed forward like she was sucking on a strawberry lollipop. She came out of the apartment the Mexican men used to live. A girl my age.

"Hey little girl," she said.

I didnít know anyone had moved into the apartment. The Mexicans left at the end of the summer. They came to Pine Springs every year to work. They woke up early in the mornings and laughed until late at night. I was glad they left because they threw cigarette butts on the grass. Office Management said they had no regard for rules. My daddy said that was racisting.

"I like your braids," she said. Her hair was yellow with curls. Her eyes were light brown. "Whatís your name?" she asked.

"Aziza," I said.

"Wanna play?" she said.

She pronounced it plai. I said I couldnít. My daddy didnít want me playing with people in Broad View apartments. This was the Mississippi, he said, and people kept guns, and weíd had enough trouble in Nigeria, and he didnít want any more.

A head appeared in the doorway. He looked exactly like her but younger with two missing teeth. "You our neighbor?" he asked. He sounded as if he had just woken up. It was after school.

"Yes," I said.

He rubbed his eyes. "My daddyís in jail," he said. "And he didnít do it."

The girl pushed him out of the doorway. "Iím Ashley," she said, "and oh, thatís my brother Catfish. He lies."

***

I told my daddy it was not fair. Seidu and Hakeem had each other to play with after school. They watched television and listened to hip hop music on the radio. They liked different things from me. Seidu was my quiet brother and he shared my room. He read books about outer space and made a comic called Captain Africa. Hakeem was my troublesome brother. He shared a room with my daddy. He liked white chicks. He told everyone in school he was Hakeem Olajuwonís nephew.

I knew we were to study hard and not look for trouble.

I knew how we got to America. We won a green card. We sold our furniture and car to buy plane tickets. I knew my daddy was working hard in Pine Springs. I didnít want to hear it anymore. Weíd been in America for more than a year, and one thing about America, you had to stick up for your rights, so I stuck up for mine.

I told my daddy I had no friends at home. I needed social interaction. I wanted to play with the girl next door. My daddy said he would think about it.

***

I saw Ashley. We could play. Not in the playground by the gates where someone could kidnap us, but in the grassy space by the bushes with snakes. I was not allowed into her apartment. It was Fall but still hot outside. Ashley taught me wrestling. She was from the country and not afraid of snakes.

"If we see any, Iíll get a gun and shoot them."

I was scared. "Thatís really bad. You shouldnít shoot."

"Why? Itís just snakes. Itís not like Iím gonna shoot at you or something. Hey, Asosa, grab my neck."

She kept getting my name wrong. She even called me Assassin.

"Aziza!" I said. "Call me Azi if you canít remember. My mummy calls me that."

"Ezzy," she said. "Where is your mama?"

I lied. "Africa."

"How come yíall are here in Pine Springs?"

"My daddyís cousin works here." He was a doctor in town.

"Oh."

"Where is your daddy?" I asked her.

"Ezzy," she said. "Look. Can you do this? Watch me."

She tumbled in the grass. She had not had a bath anyway. I could tell from her puppy smell. I asked what school she went. She said she was home-schooled.

Her mother taught? I had seen her mother. She had yellow hair too, but brown in some parts. She smoked and Ashleyís clothes smelled of it. Daddy said she didnít seem to care where her children were. She was always indoors while they were outside wandering.

Hakeem said she didnít even wear a bra. A woman like her what could she teach?

Ashley called her maíam. In the mornings I heard her shouting through the bathroom wall. "Ash-lay! Asher-ly! Get yer butt in here! Stop acting ugly. Youíre fixiní ta . . ."

Sometimes I heard her shouting at Catfish too. "Quit whininí! Quit fussiní! Quit holleriní!" Most times she called him in a gentle voice. "Cain?" Cain was his real name, Catfish.

"It must be real nice Rinafrica," Ashley said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Swinging on trees with the kangaroos," she said.

She was not really educated. Grade Three would have been tough for her, and she asked too many Rinafrica questionsó When you were Rinafrica? I didnít want to answer them. I liked her anyway. I knew she had a bad family secret, but I had one too.

***

Catfish licked me, like chocolate. I was play wrestling with Ashley. He was watching us. He ran up when I had Ashley on the ground and grabbed my waist. He wouldnít let go. I tried to wriggle him off. He touched my boobies.

"Catfish," I said. "I know you look up to me and all that. But you donít have to touch me. My body is my property. Understand?"

"Sorry," he said.

He leaned over and licked my cheek.

"Gross!" I shouted.

"Oh gross," Ashley said, and she started laughing too.

"Sorry," Catfish said again. He was smiling.

His voice was always as if he had just woken up. He wouldnít stop following me around. Ezzy this, Ezzy that. He picked snot from his nose. His jeans dropped low. I saw his butt. It was pink. He really didnít tell lies. All he did was whine. He was scared. He hurt his toe. Oo he fell. Look at his booboo. Ashley said he was a whiny baby. Whenever we played wrestling by the bushes he watched us. Ashley was tough but I won too. Ashley was either laughing with her mouth wide open or frowning into the distance. She switched from one to the other, just like that. Whenever her mother called "Ash-lay! Asher-ly!" She jumped up and said, "Gotta go." She came to my door every day after school and asked if we could play.

"Hello Ezzyís brother, can Ezzy plai?" "Hello Ezzyís big brother, can Ezzy plai?"

"Ezzy! Hi!"

One day I allowed her into our apartment. "Sure nice of you to let me in," she said, and Hakeem and Seidu laughed at her. She said they talked funny like me and it was okay we were Moslems because we were all one in Christ anyway. I took her to my room. She smiled when she saw our two mattresses. We bounced on mine. Hakeem put the radio on in the living room and hip hop music came on loud. Ashley stuck her fingers in her ears and crossed her eyes. She liked cowboy music instead. She taught me one song, "I Feel Like a Woman." We were singing it after we wrestled and Catfish joined us.

"I feel like a woman," he sang in his sleepy voice.

"Youíre not a woman," Ashley said.

"You either," he said.

Ashley laughed. "Heís gai," she said.

"Iím not gay!" Catfish said.

He walked away in a temper. I knew what that meant. Catfish was not gay, Catfish was silly.

"Youíll go to the devil for saying that!" he shouted.

"Bubba said you were!" Ashley shouted after him.

"Whiny baby," she said after he slammed the door.

She could be mean, acting ugly as her mother said, but she could be cute as well. Like her frowns and smiles, so sudden. After Catfish had gone, she said. "Okai Ezzy. Listen to my poem.

I love puppies
and kittens
and nightingales
and burnt macaroni cheese necklaces."

"Whoa," I said.

***

Ashley told me, "Catfish wants to French kiss you."

"Gross," I said.

"No, I donít," Catfish said in his sleepy voice.

"Heís in love with you," Ashley said.

"No Iím not," Catfish said.

"Oh gross," I said.

Ashley leaned over, as if Catfish were not really sitting between us. We were on the grass near the bushes with snakes.

"He wants you to be his girlfriend Ezzy," she said.

"No, I donít," Catfish said. He was almost crying, so I knew it was true.

"I thought heís gay," I said.

"Heís gai," she said. "But he still loves you."

"Catfish," I said. "You can never French kiss me. You hear? Donít even try. I remember when you licked me and I didnít appreciate that."

Ashley laughed. "Yeah, and I told him he canít kiss you anyway because youíre . . ." She shut her mouth fast.

"What?" I asked.

"Never mind," she said.

I knew what she was going to say: Black.

Catfish was looking at us, confused.

Ashley screwed up her nose. "My mama said you werenít really."

"What?" I asked again.

Catfish was rubbing his eyes. I looked at the gaps in his teeth. He had spit in the middle. Whose mouth should Ashley protect? She was my best friend in the whole wild world.

"My mama sees your daddy going to work," she said. "She says heís not really Black."

"Yes, he is," I said.

"No, youíre not."

"Yes, I am," I said.

"Ezzy," she said. "Look at this. Look Ezzy. Can you do this?" She tumbled in the grass. I was racisted.

***

Ashley found a condom. It was round and blue in a packet. Lubricated. The Mexicans must have left it. She passed it like chocolate. "You know what it is?"

"Sure," I said. Iíd seen them on billboards in Nigeria. If men didnít wear them, they died of AIDS from women.

"You know what itís used for?" she asked.

"Oh, I know all that," I said. "Private parts, boring."

"Hey," she said. "I know someone who got touched in the private parts."

"My whole body is my private parts," I said.

"And if it doesnít feel right," she said. "You say no and tell a grown up."

"What if it feels right?" I asked.

"What if," she said. "Your whole body was really a private part?"

I held my nose. "Stinks," I said.

"Hey," she said. "What if . . . what if your mama, what if someone smacked her real hard and busted her lip, and she had to run away, and he found her, and now she wants to go back to him?" She was laughing.

"What if," I said. "Your mummy, what if someone took a gun . . ."

"Oo," she said.

"And what if . . ."

Ashley grabbed my arm. "Omigosh. Itís a squirrel."

"Kee-yute," I said. It was a tiny one by the bushes with snakes.

Ashley put the condom back in her pocket. She stood up and tiptoed towards a rock on the sandy part we never wrestled on. She picked up the rock.

"Ash!" I said and covered my mouth.

She threw it at the squirrel. The squirrel ran into the bushes.

"They always get away," she said.

***

On Halloween I dressed up as an Arabian princess for school. My costume was from Wal-Mart and baggy but I was satisfied with it.

"Trick or treat?" Ashley said. She was a witch. She had a mask on with a hat and wig.

I knew it was her. "Hey, Ashley," I said.

"Iím not Ashley. Iím The Evil . . ."

"Oh be quiet," I said. "Your hair is sticking out."

"Ezzy," she said. "Come on Ezzy. Iíve been waiting for you."

I had too much candy from school. Seidu and Hakeem were watching television. I took a handful of tootsie rolls from my plastic pumpkin and gave it to Ashley.

"You waste food in America," I said.

"And it affects our ozone layer," she said chewing.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"My place," she said.

"Iím not allowed in," I said.

"My mamaís out," she said.

"Okay," I said.

It was cold outside and I was bored. Ashley kept poking me with her red finger nails. She said I was a scaredy cat. "You are the silliest witch," I said. She kicked her door open. I could smell cigarette smoke inside.

"Whereís Catfish?" I asked.

"Heís with my mama and Bubba. Let me show you my room."

She shut the door. We stepped over a laundry basket in the corridor. It was filled with clothes. Ashleyís room had two real beds. One had a Pokemon sheet and the other had yellow flowers.

"I sleep in here," she said. "So does Cain, unless he gets scared then he goes to my mamaís room. Wanna see?"

"Yes," I said. I stood by the door. Ashleyís motherís bed had striped sheets. I could run and jump on it. When would we have real beds in our own apartment? Big real beds like we had in Nigeria? My daddy said these things took time when you were starting all over in another country.

"Wait," Ashley said. "Let me show you something real scary."

She walked to her motherís bed and looked underneath. I thought I heard the front door open. I turned to check. I saw the laundry basket had tipped over and some clothes were on the floor.

"Ezzy," Ashley said.

"Hm?"

I turned back. She was pointing a gun. "See?" she said.

***
<

I ran from their house. I ran and fell over the laundry basket. I got up and ran. I did not stop until I got home.

In Nigeria they told my daddy to get out of our car, the armed robbers. They dragged my mummy out. Fucking ass, one of them said, Lay down there. She lay on the road. One of the men aimed a gun at her head. Another held my daddy face down on the bonnet.

I kill you! he shouted.

Seidu and Hakeem were in the car with me. I held Seidu tight. I could feel his heart bumping against mine. I heard my daddy say, Please donít kill her. Who axed you to talk? Pass me that rifle, man, Let me lambaste the motherfucka. What? You canít control your wife? Why was she shouting like dat?

Sheís scared for the children! my daddy said.

What?

The children . . .

Ka-pow!

Mummy!

Ka-pow!

Mum . . .

Seidu peed on me. My nose was running plenty. By the gate of our house. They could have killed my daddy too. They could have killed all of us. You see why we came to America? It was not safe anymore. The whole wild world. They took my mummyís car and killed her.

Ashley ran after me. She came to our door. I leaned against it. She knocked and I wouldnít answer. She kicked.

"What is going on?" Hakeem asked. He was still watching television with Seidu.

"Stop it Aziza!" Seidu shouted.

They thought Ashley and I were playing a game. When she wouldnít stop kicking, Seidu came and tried to push me aside.

"Open it," he said.

"No," I said.

He tried to pull me away.

"Nooo," I said.

She would shoot us. Bang. Bang. Bang. Seidu pulled me with both hands and I almost fell over. He opened the door. Ashley was standing there without her mask. Without her gun.

"Go away," I told her.

"I was just playing!" she said.

"Want to come in?" Seidu asked her.

"No," I said. "She canít come in here. Not anymore."

She began to jump up and down, screaming.

"What the . . ." Hakeem said. He too came to the door and stood by Seidu.

"Azi!" Hakeem said. "Let the girl come in!"

She was jumping higher. Screaming louder. She said she had no friends, and Bubba was mean to her, and he wasnít her real daddy.

"No," I said. I slammed the door in her face.

"What happened?" Hakeem asked.

"She called me black," I said.

"You are," he said.

"Sheís white," I said wiping my nose. I could have kicked her.

"This same girl youíve been playing with?" he said.

"Iím never playing with her again," I said.

"Youíd better stay away from each other. If thatís how youíre going to behave. Thatís the trouble with you girls. You fight and your fights always have to be big." He went back to the television. Seidu stayed with me.

"Are you okay Azi?" he asked.

I was trying to breathe.

"Is that really what happened with Ashley?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "But donít tell Daddy."



Sefi Atta was born in Nigeria. She was educated there and in England, where she worked as a chartered accountant for several years. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and lives in Mississippi with her husband and daughter. Her work has appeared in publications in Nigeria and England and is forthcoming in Carve Magazine. This year, she was shortlisted for the Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa, and her play "An Engagement" was broadcast by BBC radio.
 
 
 
 


 
 
 
 

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