Authors: Dara Girard
Published by ILORI PRESS BOOKS LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any fashion without the express written consent of the copyright holder.
A Fortunate Mistake
The phone call shattered a beautiful crying fit at 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve. Marina Durosomo had gone through an entire box of tissues and blown her nose until it hurt and her red rimmed eyes were dry when the piercing of the phone invaded her quiet apartment. She wanted to ignore it, to continue to drown in her misery and the stinging critique of her now closed bakery that continued to torment her, but the insistent ringing wouldn't stop. Who could be calling her now? She didn't want to hear more bad news. She reluctantly reached for the phone, slow enough to hope that by the time she picked up, the person on the other end would hang up.
"Hello?" she said.
"Did I wake you?"
Marina wiped her eyes, recognizing her mother's voice. She was good at asking questions that didn't need an answer. If she said 'yes', her mother would apologize but not really mean it. If she said 'no', her mother would ask what was wrong and she didn't want to tell her. "I'm fine."
"You sound like you're coming down with a cold."
"I'm fine," she repeated, tossing her empty box of tissues into the recycling bin.
"You don't sound--"
"Mom, what's wrong?"
"I need you to pick up Aunty Helen."
"That's her English name. You won't remember her real one. Besides, you don't know her. She's the mother of a good friend of ours."
Because her mother had about twenty 'good friends' Marina didn't even try to make the connection. It wasn't unusual to have unexpected visitors arrive from Nigeria. They treated their family like a taxi and hotel service, but her mother and father were steeped in the tradition of hospitality and didn't want anything negative said about them back home, even though an ocean separated them. "Okay when will she be here?"
"She's arriving at four-thirty."
"Yes, why else would I be calling you now? You have an hour and a half to get ready and be over there."
Her mother made it sound so sensible. "Why me?"
"She's coming in at BWI. You're closer to the airport and I have to go to work."
"I work too."
Her mother's responding silence was eloquent. She used to work. She used to have a business she was proud of, but that was all over now. All because of a major recession and a business partner who'd embezzled her funds and disappeared. But no, the truth was her business hadn't failed. She had. There were other bakeries that were flourishing, but the critique had shown a light on all her fears. She just wasn't good enough. Her mother had told her the bakery was a foolish dream, that she should have tried for something more sensible. Her mother would never say 'I told you so', but she didn't have to. Now she would be chauffer to some stranger. This was her punishment. She hated the holidays. Every year they seemed to show her how far she was from the life she wanted. It highlighted another year of grasping for something out of reach.
"What's her flight number?" Marina asked to fill the silence and resigned to her fate.
Her mother told her.
"Can't Wale go?"
"I can't reach him. Hurry, I don't want her waiting there alone. And this will be good for you."
"Yes, to get out of your apartment."
"Mom, I don't need to hear this right now. I just want to sleep."
"You can sleep all you want after you pick her up and settle her in your place."
"Yes, we'll come and get her in the evening."
Marina looked around her messy apartment--the carpet needed a good vacuum, she could spell her name in the dust. After her career imploded she hadn't cared about her surroundings. She didn't want a guest, she didn't want to pretend to celebrate the holidays, she wanted to disappear, but she didn't have a choice.
"What does she look like?" Marina asked opening her closet.
Marina waited. When her mother didn't elaborate she rolled her eyes and sighed. "That's all? A tiny black woman?"
"You'll find her," her mother said with impatience. "She'll be looking for you and you will find each other. You're smart." She hung up.
Marina scowled at the phone then disconnected.
At times she hated being a diligent daughter. She wanted to say "Let her wait." Why did this Aunty, what-was-her-name--Helga? Hettie?--have to wait until now to let them know she was arriving? So inconsiderate. She could have called them when she changed flights in Amsterdam. But Marina had learned to keep her thoughts to herself. She had no husband or children to hide behind and now she couldn't even say she had a business to run. She had no life, so she had to do as she was told.
Marina stood in the baggage claim area of Baltimore Washington International feeling like a farmer trying to find a particular blade of grass in a field. Although it wasn't as crowded as a midmorning or late afternoon flight, there were still enough people to get lost in. Marina shoved her hands in her gray wool coat and rocked on her heels. She still couldn't remember the blasted woman's name--Herma? Hilda? Helen? Yes, that was it Helen! But recalling her name was just a small victory. She had no idea how she was supposed to find this woman. Aunty Helen a woman she'd never heard of who was the grandmother of some friend's mother.
Marina was about to give up hope and call her mother when she saw a small woman standing near the wall with a large bag. She wore a brightly colored headwrap in a pattern she'd never seen before and a well tailored dress that matched. The woman looked composed, as if standing for a portrait--her eighty some years had been kind to her. She had a certain glow that drew Marina to her. She seemed out of place. That had to be her.
Marina made her way over to the woman, confident she'd found the elusive Aunty Helen. Although she wasn't the only one in regional clothes, she was the only one not properly dressed for the cold December weather. At least others sported long coats or gloves, but she only wore her dress, as if she expected to step out into a nice ninety degree sun.
Marina stopped in front of her and smiled."Aunty Helen?"
The woman smiled and her face seemed to glow.
Marina glanced down at her one bag surprised. She'd never picked up someone with so little luggage. "Is that all that you have? Do you need me to help you get the rest?"
She continued to smile.
Marina inwardly groaned. "Please tell me you speak English."
Her smile grew wider.
She softly swore. Why hadn't her mother told her she didn't speak English? That was rare, but the woman looked past eighty so maybe she hadn't had a chance to learn. Unfortunately, her Yoruba wasn't good. She understood it better than speaking it.
In broken Yoruba she attempted to talk to her. "I'm sorry. I'm not good at this. One?" She held up one finger. "Bag?" She pointed to the bag.
The woman blinked and continued to smile.
Marina glanced in the direction of the baggage area and saw that it was empty. "I'm just going to take that as a yes." She turned back to the woman. Things were starting to become a little eerie. She had the bright, trusting nature of a child."Do you have anything warm in there?" She pointed to the bag again.
The woman blinked, but her smile faltered.
Marina pointed outside then hugged herself and shivered. "Cold. You'll be cold. You need something warm." She pointed to the bag again then took the strap. "Can I see?"
The woman released her grip confused.
Marina kneeled and opened the bag. "Please tell me someone had the sense to pack a sweater for you." But she didn't see anything that would be warm enough. Unfortunately, the airport stores were closed. She took off her coat. She had a knit sweater underneath. "You'll have to wear this," she said wrapping it around the woman.
Her bright smile returned and she patted Marina on the cheek. Her hand was remarkably soft and gentle.
The kind gesture made Marina feel like crying all over again. At least someone felt that she was doing something right. Even if it was as simple as keeping them warm. "You're welcome," she said in a brusque tone. She stood. "Come on."
Aunty Helen didn't say anything on the drive to Marina's apartment. She stared out at the dark, chilly morning, looking at the bright lights of the highway and the large buildings looming on both sides of the highway. Close to her apartment, Marina stopped at an all-night grocery store and bought another box of tissues and a pair of wool gloves.
When she got back into the car, she rubbed her hands together. "Warm enough?"
Aunty Helen just blinked.
Marina put the gloves in her lap. "You'll need these." She put them on her. "Better?" she said, not expecting a reply and not getting one. Instead Aunty Helen held up her hands, flexed her fingers and smiled.
At home, Marina put Aunty Helen's bag in the hall. She wasn't tired and her guest didn't look so either. Marina mimed holding a bowl and spoon and pretended to eat. "Hungry?" she asked.
Aunty Helen blinked.
She mimed drinking. "Or thirsty?"
The woman blinked again.
Marina sighed. "I'll just give you something okay? And then you can rest on the couch until my mother picks you up and I don't know why I keep talking to you when you don't know what I'm saying."
She put on the kettle for tea then quickly put together a meal of peanut soup she'd recently gotten from her mother.
The woman delve into the meal and again patted her on the cheek, but this time Marina didn't feel like crying. She felt glad she'd been able to make the woman happy. She was clearing up her living room couch to give her a place to nap when her phone rang. She checked the number and sighed when she saw her brother, Wale's, number. "What do you want?"
"To warn you. Mom's upset. You're in big trouble," he said in Yoruba.
"I'm always in trouble," she said in kind.
He laughed then said in English. "Your Yoruba still sucks."
"Shut up, it's not too late for me to give you a lump of coal," she said then hung up the phone, wondering why her brother felt like teasing her. And what could her mother be upset about now? A moment later, her phone rang again. She was about to say something rude when she recognized the number.
"Why didn't you pick up Aunty Helen?" she demanded.
"What do you mean? I did." She looked at the woman sitting in her kitchen. "She's right here. You could have told me that she didn't speak English."