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When Glory’s parents christened her Glorybetogod Ngozi Akunyili, they did not foresee Facebook’s “real name” policy, nor the weeks she would spend populating forms and submitting copies of her bills and driver’s license and the certificate that documented her birth on September 9, 1986, a rainy Tuesday, at 6:45 p.m., after six hours of labor and six years of barrenness. Pinning on her every hope they had yet to realize, her parents imagined the type of life that well-situated Igbos imagined for their children. She would be a smart girl with the best schooling. She would attend church regularly and never stray from the Word (amen!). She would learn to cook like her grandmother, her father added, to which her mother countered, “Why not like her mother?” and Glorybetogod’s father hemmed and hawed till his wife said maybe he should go and eat at his mother’s house. But back to Glorybetogod, whom everyone called Glory except her grandfather, who called her “that girl” the first time he saw her.

“That girl has something rotten in her, her chi is not well.”

Husband pulled wife out of the room to prevent a brawl (“I don’t care how old that drunk is, I will fix his mouth today”) and begged his father to accept his firstborn grandchild. He didn’t see, as the grandfather did, the caul of misfortune covering Glory’s face, which would affect every decision she made, causing her to err on the side of wrong, time and time again. When Glory was five, she decided after much consideration to stick her finger into the maw of a sleeping dog. At seven, shortly after her family relocated to the United States, Glory thought it a good idea to walk home when her mother was five minutes late picking her up from school, a decision that saw her lost and sobbing in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot before night fell. She did a lot of things out of spite, the source of which she couldn’t identify — as if she’d been born resenting the world.

Illustrations by Steven Dana

Illustrations by Steven Dana

That’s how, much to her parents’ embarrassment, their Glory was nearing thirty, chronically single, and working at a call center in downtown Minneapolis. She fielded calls from disgruntled homeowners on the brink of foreclosure, reading from a script that was intricate and logical and written by people who had never before spoken on the phone to a human being. In all their calculations about her future, Glory’s parents had never imagined that on April 16, 2013, at 5:17 p.m., Glory would receive another email refusing to restore her Facebook page. Nor could they have conceived that Glory would be the sort of person for whom this misfortune would set rolling an avalanche of misery, which led her to contemplate taking her life.

She called her mother, hoping to be talked out of it, but got her voicemail and then a text saying, “What is it now?” (Glory knew better than to respond.) A call to her father would yield a cooler response, and so she spent her evening on the edge of her bed, neck itching like crazy, contemplating how a bottle of Moscato and thirty gel-filled sleeping pills would go together. The note she wrote read:

I was born under an unlucky star and my destiny has caught up with me. I’m sorry Mummy and Daddy that I didn’t complete law school and become the person you’d hoped. But it was also your fault for putting so much pressure on me. Goodbye.

All of this was true, and not. She was unlucky, yes, but it was less Fate and more her terrible decision-making and laziness that saw her flunk out of college, along with her propensity for arguing with professors and storming out, never to return. She eventually graduated with a shameful G.P.A. Then came law school, to which she gained entrance through a favor of a friend of a friend of her father’s, thinking that her argumentative tendencies could be put to good use. But she managed to screw that up too, choosing naps instead of class, happy hours instead of studying. She was unable to do right, no matter how small the choice. These foolish little decisions incremented into probation, then a polite request to leave, followed by an impolite request to leave after she staged a protest in the dean’s office.

It was also true that her parents put pressure on her. Yet theirs was the sort of hopeful pressure that would have encouraged a better person.

Glory fell asleep after a glass and a half of wine and woke to find the pills a melted, bitter mass in her fist. In the morning light, her melodramatic note mortified her, and she tore it up and flushed it down the toilet. At work, avoiding the glare of her supervisor and the finger he pointed at the clock, she switched on her headphones to receive the first call: Mrs. Dumfries. Her husband had died and she had no clue where any paperwork was. Could Glory help her keep her house? Glory read from her script, avoiding the “no” she was never allowed to utter. Then there was Glen, who was actually Greg, who was also Peter, who called every day at least four or five times and tried to trick the customer-service reps into promises they couldn’t keep. Little did he know that even if Glory promised him his childhood home, complete with all the antiques that had gone missing after the foreclosure, she would only be fired and he would be stuck in the same two-bedroom apartment with his kids. All day the calls came in, and Glory had to say no without saying “no,” and the linguistic acrobatics required to evade this simple answer wore away her nerves.

At lunch, she ate one of the burritos that came three for a dollar at the discount grocery store and a nice-looking sandwich that belonged to one of her co-workers, and checked her email again. Even though her Facebook account hadn’t yet been restored, she walked by the lobby of the advertising agency that dominated the top two floors of the building. Before she reached the glass doors, she paused by the wall to the right, on which the agency had mounted the logos of the companies it represented. She took a photo of herself in front of the logo of the jewelry mega-chain. When her Facebook page was restored, she would post the picture, with the caption: “Worked on my favorite account today. The best part is the free samples!”

HA072__03H80-1Then her cousin in Port Harcourt would like her post, and another friend would confess her envy, and others still would say how (OMG!) she was sooo lucky. And for a moment, she would live the sort of life her parents imagined for her those many, many years ago.

After her lunch break, she sank back into her seat and was about to switch her headset on when he walked in. Glory knew he was Nigerian right away by his gait. And when he spoke, a friendly greeting as he shook her supervisor’s hand, her guess was confirmed. He wore a suit, slightly ill fitting, but his shoulders made up for it. He joined a group of trainees across the room.

He had an air of competence that she found irritating, reading from the script as though he had memorized it and managing to make it sound compassionate and genuine. At one point, he noticed her staring, and every time she looked at him after that, he was looking at her, too.

She culled bits and pieces of him over the rest of the day, eavesdropped on impressed supervisors who sang his praises. He was getting an M.B.A. at the U. He had grown up in Nigeria but visited his uncle in Atlanta every summer. After his M.B.A., he was going to attend law school. His parents were both doctors.

Glory knew what he was doing, because she did it as well: sharing too many details of her life with these strangers, signaling why she didn’t belong here earning $13.50 an hour. She was something better than a “customer-service representative” — everyone should know that this title was only temporary. Except in his case, it was all true.

He smiled at her when she was leaving, a smile so sure of reciprocation that Glory wanted to flip him off. But the home training that lingered caused her to avert her eyes instead and hurry to catch the bus.

Her phone dinged. “Why did you call me, do you need money again?” A text from her mother. No, she wanted to respond, I’m doing fine, but she didn’t. After a week, her mother might send $500 and say this was the last time and she’d better not tell her father. Glory would use the money to complete her rent or buy new shoes, or squirrel it away to be nibbled bit by bit — candy here, takeout there — till it disappeared.

Then, when her mother couldn’t restrain herself anymore, Glory would receive a stern, long-winded lecture via email, about how she wouldn’t have to worry about such things if she were married, and why didn’t she let her father introduce her to some of the young men at his work? And Glory would delete it, and cry, and retrace all the missteps that had led her to this particular place. She knew her birth story, and what her grandfather had said, but it never made a difference when the time came to make the right choice. She was always drawn to the wrong one, like a dog curious to taste its own vomit.

The next day, Glory arrived at work to see the man sitting in the empty spot next to hers.

“Good morning.”

“Hi.”

“My name is Thomas. They told me you are also from Nigeria? You don’t sound it.”

“I’ve been here since I was six. I hope you don’t think I should have kept my accent that long.”

He flinched at her rudeness, but pressed on.

“I don’t know many Nigerians here. Maybe you can introduce me?”

Glory considered the handful of women she knew who would love to be introduced to this guy, still green and fresh. But they saw little of her real life, thought Glory an ad exec with a fabulous living, and any introductions would jeopardize that.

“Sorry, I don’t really know anyone, either. You should try talking to someone with real friends.”

He laughed, thinking she was joking, and his misunderstanding loosened her tongue. It was nice to talk to someone new who had no expectations of her.

“So, why are you slumming it here with the rest of us? Shouldn’t you be interning somewhere fabulous?”

“This is my internship. I actually work in corporate, but thought I should get a better understanding of what happens in the trenches.”

“Wait, you’re here voluntarily? Are you crazy?”

He laughed again.

“No, it’s just. . . You wouldn’t understand.”

“I’m not stupid,” Glory said, thinking he thought that of her. “So fuck you.”

She ignored his “Whoa, where did that come from?” and switched on her headset, turning her dial to the busiest queue. The calls came in one after the other, leaving Thomas little chance to apologize if he wanted to.

An hour later, he pressed a note into Glory’s palm. I’m sorry, it read. Can I treat you to lunch?

Her pride said no, but her stomach, last filled with the sandwich she had stolen yesterday afternoon, begged a yes.

She snatched up his pen. I guess.

Mom, I’m seeing someone.” Glory typed and deleted that sentence over and over, never sending it. Her mother would call for sure, and then she’d dissect every description of Thomas till he was flayed to her satisfaction. Her father would ask to hear the “young man’s intentions” and the cloying quality of their attention would ruin it.

Thomas would delight them. He went to church every Sunday — though he’d learned to stop inviting her — and he had the bright sort of future that was every parent’s dream. He prayed over his meals, before he went to bed, when he woke up. He prayed for her.

Glory despised him. She hated the sheen of accomplishment he wore, so dulled on her. She hated his frugal management of money. She hated that when she pressed him for sex, he demurred, saying that they should wait till they were more serious.

Glory couldn’t get enough of him. She loved that he watched Cartoon Network with the glee of a teenager; loved that he could move through a crowd of strangers and emerge on the other side with friends. He didn’t seem to mind her coarseness, how her bad luck had deepened her bitterness so that she wished even the best of people ill. He didn’t seem to mind how joy had become a finite meal she begrudged seeing anyone but herself consume.

She wanted to ask him what he saw in her, but was afraid the answer would be qualities she knew to be an illusion.

They talked of Nigeria often, or at least he did, telling her about growing up in Onitsha and how he wanted to move back someday. He said “we” and “us” like it was understood that she would go back with him, and she began to savor a future she had never imagined for herself.

She’d been to Nigeria many times, but it was the one thing she kept from him, enjoying, then loathing, then enjoying how excited he was to explain the country to her. He didn’t know that what little money she scraped together was spent on a plane ticket to Nigeria every thirteen months, or that over the past few years, she had arrived the day after her grandmother’s death, then the day after her great-aunt’s death, and then her uncle’s, so that her grandfather asked her to let him know when she booked her ticket, so that he could prepare to die. Thomas still didn’t know she was unlucky.

She kept it secret to dissuade any probing, not yet aware that people like Thomas were never suspicious, as trusting of the world’s goodness as children born to wealth. When she visited her grandfather, with whom she had negotiated a relative peace, they sat together in his room watching TV, Glory getting up only to fetch food or drink for them. Nobody knew why she made the trips as often as she did, or why she eschewed the bustle of Lagos for his sleepy village. She couldn’t explain that her grandfather knew her, saw her for what she was — a black hole that compressed and eliminated fortune and joy and happiness — and still opened his home to her, gave her a room and a bed, the mattress so old the underside bore stains from when her mother’s water broke.

Near the end of her last stay, their conversation had migrated to her fate.

“There is only disaster in your future if you do not please the gods.”

The older she got, the more she felt the truth of it: the deep inhalation her life had been so far, to prepare her for the explosive exhalation that would eventually flatten her.

“Papa, you know I don’t have it in me to win anyone’s favor, let alone the gods’.”

They were both dressed in shorts and singlets, the voltage of the generator being too low to carry anything that cooled. Glory sat on the floor, moving every half hour to relish the chill of the tiles. Her grandfather lounged on the bed.

When he began one of his fables, she closed her eyes.

“A porcupine and a tortoise came to a crossroads, where a spirit appeared before them. ‘Carry me to the heart of the river and let me drink,’ the spirit said. Neither wanted to be saddled with the spirit, but they could not deny it with no good reason.

“ ‘I am slow,’ said the tortoise, ‘it will take us many years to reach it.’

“ ‘I am prickly,’ said the porcupine, ‘the journey will be too painful.’

“The spirit raged.

“ ‘If you don’t get me to the heart of the river by nightfall and give me a cup to drink, I will extinguish every creature of your kind.’

“The tortoise and the porcupine conferred. ‘What if you carry me,’ said the tortoise, ‘while I carry the spirit? We will surely make it by nightfall.’

“ ‘I have a better idea,’ said the porcupine. ‘These are no ordinary quills on my back. They are magic quills capable of granting any wish. The only condition is that you must close your eyes and open them only after your wish is granted.’

“The tortoise and the spirit each plucked a quill, eager for desires out of reach. They closed their eyes. That’s when the porcupine snatched the quill from the tortoise and jammed it into the flesh of his throat. He filled the spirit’s hands with blood, which it drank, thinking the gurgling it heard to be that of the river. But spirits know the taste of blood, and this one lashed out at the porcupine, only to find that it could move no faster than a tortoise. The porcupine continued on his way.”

Her grandfather’s long pause signaled the end.

“Are you hearing me?”

“Yes, but what does it mean?”

“If you can’t please the gods, trick them.”

The time with her grandfather had eased the pressure building in her, but then she came back stateside to another stream of catastrophes. Keys left on the plane. An accident in which her foot slipped on the pedal made smooth by the car-insurance check she had forgotten to mail. A job lost for lack of transportation, which is how she ended up disappointing former homeowners in the petri dish of a large call center.

Thomas, on the other hand, was a lucky man. He always seemed to find money lying around in the street, although never so large an amount as to induce alarm or guilt. He got what he wanted, always, and attributed it to ingenuity and perseverance, unaware of the halo of fortune resting on his head. When she had him write the request to restore her Facebook page, it was back up in a day. He would have been appalled to know that she sometimes followed him when they parted ways after work, watching with fascination as he drew amity from everyone who came close.

Some of that luck rubbed off on her, and she found herself receiving invitations to long-standing events she hadn’t even known existed. Igbo Women’s Fellowship of the Midwest. Daughters of Biafra, Minnesota Chapter. Party, Party, a monthly event rotated among different homes. Sometimes, as she watched Thomas charm a crowd with little effort, she wondered how it was that one person could be so blessed and another not. They had been born in the same state to parents of similar means and faith. Even taking into account the rewards of his maleness, it seemed to Glory that they should have been in the same place. She began to think of his luck as something that had been taken from her, and viewed this relationship as a way to even her odds.

At last they were serious enough for Thomas, and the sex was, not mediocre exactly, but just good — not the mind-blowing experience she had expected it to be. Thomas was moved, and thanked her for trusting him, and she said “You’re welcome” in that cutesy, girlish way she knew he would like, even though what she really wanted was for him to not be such a gentleman and fuck her silly.

But the more he said “us” and “we,” the less quickly she deleted that “Mom, I’m seeing someone” text. One day, instead of sending it, she posted a picture of her and Thomas on her Facebook wall, setting off a sequence that involved her Port Harcourt cousin calling another cousin who called another and so on and so forth, until the news got to her mother, who called her right away. It took thirty-seven minutes.

Glory waited till just before the call went to voicemail to pick up.

“Hello?”

“Who is he? Praise God! What is his name?”

“Thomas Okongwu.”

Her mother started praising God again. Glory couldn’t help but laugh. It had been years since any news she delivered over the phone had given her mother cause for joy, and she felt a blush of gratitude. She told her mother about Thomas and his ambitions, getting more animated as her mother got more excited. She ignored the occasional hint of disbelief on the other end of the line, as if her mother couldn’t quite believe her daughter had gotten something right.

After that, it was like everything she did was right. Her job, long pilloried, was now a good thing. No career, her father said, meant that she could fully concentrate on her children when they came along. That she was terrible at managing money became a nonissue. You see, she had picked the perfect man to make up for her weaknesses. Kind where she was not, frugal where she was not. Successful.

Glory stared at her father’s email, meant to comfort but instead bringing to mind the wine and pills and what they could do to a body. She moved it to a folder she had long ago titled evidence, meant to make the case if she chose to never speak to her father again.

When Thomas asked if she’d like to meet his mother, who was free to travel as his father was not, Glory knew the right answer and gave it. But she panicked at having to impress this woman. Her parents had been easy. Thomas was impressive. She was not.

“Why do you want me to meet her?” The question was a bit coy, but Glory wanted some reassurance to hold on to.

Thomas shrugged.

“She asked to meet you.”

“So, you didn’t ask her if she wanted to meet me?”

After a patient rolling of eyes, Thomas gripped her shoulders and shook her with gentle exasperation.

“You’re always doing this. Of course I want you to meet her and of course she wants to meet you. You’re all she ever talks about now, look.”

Thomas dialed his cell phone, and after a pause, he said, “Hey, Mum, she’s right here. I’ll let you talk, but don’t go scaring her off.”

Glory heard the woman laugh on the line and say something that made her son laugh too. Then the warm phone was pressed to her ear, and a voice just shy of being too deep for a woman greeted her.

Glory tried to say all the right things about herself and her family, which meant not saying much about herself. She wanted this woman to like her, and, even beyond that, to admire her, something she wasn’t sure she could accomplish without lies. She had already pretended to quit her advertising job on her Facebook wall — a “sad day indeed,” an old college friend had said, worded so that Glory suspected he knew the truth. (She unfriended him right away.) But Thomas’s mother could not be so easily dismissed. Glory trotted out her parents’ accomplishments — engineer mother, medical-supply-business-owner father — to shore up her pedigree. Then she mentioned more recent social interests of hers, like the Igbo women’s group, leaving out Thomas’s hand in that. All the while, her inner voice wondered what the hell she was doing. Tricking the gods, she replied.

The day Thomas’s mother flew in, Glory cooked for hours at his apartment, soliciting recipes from her own mother, who took much joy in walking her through every step over the phone. By the time he left for the airport, his apartment was as fragrant as a buka, with as large a variety of dishes awaiting eager bellies.

His mother was tall and Glory felt like a child next to her. His mother was also warm, and she folded Glory into a perfumed, bosomy hug.

“Welcome, Ma,” Glory said, then wanted to kick herself for sounding so deferential.

“My dear, no need to be so formal, I feel like I’ve known you for years, the way my son goes on and on. It’s me who should be welcoming you into the family.”

His mother complimented each dish, tasting a bit of one after the other and nodding before filling her plate. It was a test, and Glory passed and felt gratified.

Thomas squeezed her leg under the table, a reassuring pressure that said, See? Nothing to worry about. But what did a person like him know about worry? When his mother questioned her about her work, it was clear she assumed Glory worked in corporate with Thomas, and neither of them dissuaded her. Yet it rankled Glory, who couldn’t decide whether Thomas had stretched the truth into a more presentable fit or had simply overlooked the possibility that his mother would make such an assumption.

It didn’t seem to matter to Thomas’s mother, who expressed her delight that Glory would soon leave and come to stay with her in Nigeria, something Glory and Thomas had never discussed. He squeezed her leg again, the pressure less reassuring: Please don’t argue with my mother.

Glory felt it then, that peculiar itch at the back of her neck that flared up when she came to a crossroads. She ignored the sensation and returned Thomas’s squeeze, and he relaxed, changing the subject to his mother’s schedule for the next day, which he and Glory would have off.

Thomas excused himself, leaving the two women to talk alone. He promised to be back in an hour and left to run an errand. Every minute that passed without Thomas by her side, Glory felt as though a veil was slipping off her, revealing more and more of her true nature. She didn’t say or do anything different, but she felt his mother close off a bit, leaning back as though to consider what manner of girl she was.

After thirty minutes, his mother’s pleasantness cooled to politeness and Glory excused herself to the bathroom before it chilled further. You have to come back now, she texted Thomas. Now!

And he did, interrupting a lie his mother could have uncovered with very little research. Perfect timing as always. Always perfect.

Not long after, the ease between the two women returned, but the more they talked, the more his mother touched on the expectation that Glory would drop everything and go back to Nigeria and live there with her hypothetical children, in her mother-in-law’s house. If the idea had been hers, Glory might not have minded it — but this was being discussed as a given, not a choice. Thomas was most comfortable in Nigeria and would move back when he was done with schooling to join his wife, who would already be settled. And Thomas was a man who got what he wanted. All the “we” and “us” now felt less like a collaboration and more like a general compelling his troops. It surprised Glory to realize that she was not the only one scheming.

After they took his mother to her hotel, Thomas and Glory idled in the parking lot, each waiting for the other to break the silence. Then, offering neither apology nor explanation, Thomas placed a box in Glory’s lap. She opened it, the hinge levering to reveal a ring that, just a year ago, she would never have imagined receiving anytime soon, or ever. The itch returned to her neck.

A part of Glory had always thought to win her parents’ good graces by her own merit. She believed that one day, she would eventually stumble into accomplishments that she could hold up as her own, that the seeming chaos of her life would coalesce into an intricate puzzle whose shape one could see only when it was complete. That this ring was to be her salvation — she couldn’t bear it. And yet, salvation it was. Acceptance into many proper folds. Lies she would never again have to tell. She could lose herself in the whirlwind of Thomas, golden child turned golden man.

But then Glory thought of the first time she had turned her luck with something truly reckless, the thing with the dog. She had felt itchy all over and there was her uncle’s dog, napping. A thought wormed into her head, that the itch would go away if she touched the dog’s tongue, and it was suddenly the right and only thing to do. She rubbed the scar on her thumb, thinking of all the times she had picked stupid over sensible, knowing, just knowing, she’d gotten it right. She could not afford to get it wrong this time.

She looked at the ring, and resentment and elation warred till one overcame the other and Glory made another decision.


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March 2016