I read this weird African Literature book called Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. I cannot talk about it. It is something you need to read on your own. After you are done here today of course, that goes without saying.
You’ll hear about Zeze today.
Usually, I am able to craft a story in 2 days tops. Sometimes I write the whole thing in one sitting for an hour or two. It took me the time it has taken me for this one.
Her favorite color is brown. It used to be purple but life has shown her she needs only a dull color. Something that hides the dirt. Unrecognizable in the dark.
“Sometimes I don’t know what I am,” she starts. “It feels like I am alive. I pinch myself and there I am, feeling it, being alive. I just don’t know for what? I started getting an idea for this question when I read Freshwater and also gave them names. I called them Esther, Joseph, Leviticus, Psalms and Zeze.”
The key attribute to Esther is she is gorgeous and she knows it. The man slayer, as she is so aptly described. Esther knows where to touch to make someone cough. Make them fold into quarters and do her bidding. She plays people like the Fiddler.
“The hems are shorter on her. She is the most sexual thing I know,” she writes. “I cannot explain it. She is tempestuous. Myself? I am very shy with people I like. Hata with people generally. I am never the girl that stands out in a group. Very ordinary.”
There was a party when they were freshmen. She went because her roommates were going and she did not want to remain in the room alone. “There were rumors spread to freshmen about a certain lady ghost who haunted the hostels. I knew they weren’t true, but I did not want to be the one to find out they weren’t.” She comes from a superstitious family, so she went with her friends to the party.
She wore the clothes she had on during the day; a sweater top, black trousers and white Adidas sneakers. Esther went into the party in a skimpy golden shimmery dress and strappy heels.
“The next day, I woke up to my friends telling me of how Esther had worked the party. How flirty she was, how she strutted into rooms with boys’ hands on the small of her back.” She controlled the room, that Esther. The literal embodiment of life of the party. They said that whenever Esther disappeared into a room or went outside for a smoke, they had to look for her. Had to find the oxygen that kept the party’s lungs going.
“I know it sounds like an exaggeration. It never seems normal describing them. I know where the lines are since I clearly set boundaries between me and them. They somehow have found a way to blur the lines. It’s the similarities that gets me, like take Joe for example.
It was both easy and not to notice Joe’s presence. He was extraordinarily smart in all matters books, but pretty gullible when it came to social cues. Joe was the kind who grapped everything taught in class and needed not to go through it again.
Initially, Zeze would recognize him when she was studying. The way her attention would instantly shift from constant distraction to immediate understanding. She liked Joe because he was not destructive. Mostly he would bail her out of situations.
She remembers one time during a Chemistry lesson in high school. The short-tempered teacher was tackling Organic Chemistry for the second time. Mr. Rotich had the tendency to randomly hold oral quizzes in his classes. He would be teaching one minute, ask a question and if the same two hands were raised with an answer he would go into a fit.
Mr. Rotich: Can anyone else other than Sally and Emma answer me? None of you were in this class when I taught this same thing yesterday? (bangs fist on the desk to grab attention) I AM TALKING TO YOU GIRLS. Can anyone else tell me what Organic Chemistry is? No one? (Ignores the two hands still raised) Okay! That’s it. Everyone up! No one sits until I receive a satisfactory answer.
The whole class, except the two know-it-alls would get on their feet.
Mr Rotich: Alright. Let’s start at the front. Mildred, can you tell us what Organic Chemistry is?
The girl at the front would fumble her words, throwing in compounds and elements at improbable sections of her nonsense paragraph, leaving Mr Rotich with an exasperated look on his face.
Zeze would pray. “Not to God. I never pray to him. I feel he is a made up concept. I prayed to whomever was listening. Plead for help from wherever it would come. He was caning anyone who got it wrong and even though I am not proud of it, I would do anything to avoid pain. Anything.
Mr. Rotich was moving through the class, devouring them like a wildfire in the desert. Zeze sat in the middle of the class and she felt suffocated. She did not want to be caned for something she did not know, or rather had simply slipped her mind. The teacher got to her desk mate. “I pleaded with myself as Dinah received her strokes. I was watching her wince in pain and I knew it wasn’t for me, then, as suddenly as if I had known it even before I had heard of it, I recited the whole answer.”
I don’t know how to explain it. The best I can do is that it feels like my body is taken over by someone else. Like Tony Stark and the Mark L. I am usually the suit and my Tonys are Esther and Joseph and the rest of the guys. I don’t understand it myself. I have zero control over it. None. It is like a possession, only I still have my eyes.
I see everything happen. I use my hands to touch items and they don’t really feel like my hands. It feels like I am using gloves, thick ones that won’t allow me to access the real world. Like I have this shield around me that both protects and harms me according to its will.
I do have control over much of my life, and before I could see someone about it, so much had happened. I have been in and out of psychiatrist offices and hospitals. I am only thankful that I never hurt anyone. The episodes are less frequent as of recently.
I can tell you what I think of each of them. Esther is a bitch, but I love her. She takes nonsense from nobody and is so unapologetically herself that I almost feel envious, then I remember she is me. She has this immense sense of self-confidence that I absolutely adore, and if you see that girl work a room? Phew, goosebumps.
Joe is subtler. Smart and cautious. There is something almost calming when I feel his presence. He doesn’t push himself out unless I let him. He is never pretentious, unlike Lev, and always is himself.
When we read Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, I saw myself in Ada. Granted, it is a made up story about personality disorder, coupled with religiosity and obscenities that are relevant to the book, but it holds relevance to me as well. It helped us understand what we are, and that was all we ever needed.