She had a Mami Wata tramp stamp tattooed on her lower back. Conveniently located so her ass crack was her cleavage, and that led to some unfortunate complications.
Some of her boyfriends tried to suck on her fake nipples for one. She didn’t mind the extra attention to her cheeks, but she never expected them to call back. That seldom happened.
She had gotten comfortable with one-night stands, and had finally made peace with her looks. She was a sweet person, but boy. She wasn’t afraid of ending up alone. She had always thought that eventually some guy about as lonely, homely, and sweet as she was would settle in with her, because past a certain point, fuck looks.
The truth was, by that point, she was accustomed to quiet mornings alone over breakfast and enjoying the silence. Now she had to bend her standards some and deal with post-coital nagging, which, although she enjoyed the power, placed her in the awkward position of having to kick people out of her apartment lest they lingered.
The tattoo was prettier than she was, so was the one-eyed Rottweiler in her neighbor’s apartment. And while they got to ogle its doggy style, they still woke up next to her, and that lopsided face, too big of everything, couldn’t possibly keep a desperate male under her sheets once the beer goggles faded. But there you had it.
Her sudden morning-after popularity had the predictable effect of making her more popular with guys she hadn’t slept with. With the press as well, who stood fascinated by a creature with the appearance of a manatee but the sex appeal of a mermaid.
As a marine biologist, she had found that her form tended to put men off, and yet the local South African news media made her into the Nigerian Stunner.
The shark population of Durban had tripled for some unknown reason. The 2017 British Petroleum, so-called Oil Armageddon had left very little biology to study along the Gulf of Guinea. So when the opportunity arose for less polluted climes, Ebele had filled in the application, packed her bags and hopped a flight for Kwazulu-Natal, while the jealous, evil-minded people of her Port Harcourt lab, joked that she was being shipped off to Krueger Park.
Ebele had grown quite a thick skin by then, and the loving, confident person that she was, filed their mockery under pain expressing pain by way of diatribe. She had, quite literally, bigger fish to fry.
It wasn’t just the men. The sharks wouldn’t bite Ebele. Jellyfish would swim around her in the thousands without a bite either. She diverted most of the local underwater traffic, attracting whale sharks, orcas, and all manner of delicious seafood, which only made her more of a mystery wrapped in wonder, trapped in Ebele.
She quickly reached the five thousand friend limit on Facebook, set new instagram and twitter standards for the virtually vain, which did wonders for promoting animal rights and her research, and she could always look forward to a handsome stranger lending her his services for the evening.
What she wasn’t expecting was the crowd of hundreds waiting for her on the beach, anxious for a touch, a smile, a signature, while she dripped with algae and salt water, threatened to drown in flashes and unwarranted fanatical admiration.
When the editor for Rooi Rose approached her, Ebele took offense, and why wouldn’t she?
People could do what they wanted, but displaying her on the cover of a fashion and fitness magazine was the kind of greed that destroyed people. Sure, Adele had made the cover of several fashion magazines. Even Kim Kardashian—who had ballooned up to 193 lbs. since stabbing Kanye in the chest—made People every once in a while. But Ebele was a Nobody.
Of all the things Ebele didn’t want, one of them was featuring on Where Are They Now?, where nobodies went ten years after their subatomic burst of fame, for their last paycheck and final humiliation.
So she didn’t expect an email the following morning and then another the following day. It wasn’t just Rooi Rose anymore, the entire fashion industry worldwide wanted a shot at Ebele, an exclusive from the woman who, for some reason no one quite understood, was redefining what a woman should be.
Her butt itched. It’s never a good idea to scratch at a tattoo. It will get infected, and you don’t want a purulent rainbow on your body. Unless you were “that” kind of person; Ebele was not, but yet she scratched.
While her right hand was busy with her lower back, her left pulled the curtain overlooking Times Square. New York City was, by all standards, about as bad as Lagos, except for crime. Crime was steadily decreasing in Lagos, but New York had a better storefront than Lagos’ dollar store and so remained, for reasons unknown, the capital of the fashionable and artistically articulate, if not necessarily talented.
A billboard rotated the animated image of size-sixteen Finnish super model Elina Saaristo, who in addition to modeling was also a well-respected barrister. The advertisement zeppelin hovering over the city twenty-four hours a day asked the 150 pounders: “Why so skinny girl?” Or: “Got that degree? You WANT that degree.”
Rooi Rose, then Sarie, then Esquire and The Rolling Stone. The Playboy Mansion, married, for a time, to Hugh Heffner Jr., plus a scandalous affair with Chris Pratt, and a somewhat greying Idriss Elba. Ariana Grande saw her popularity plummet as the world turned its eye from her size four to a size twelve overflowing.
Big was in. The fast food industry caught a second wind and removed the calorie content off their labels. The fashion industry didn’t just want bigger girls; it wanted smarter girls. College enrollment hit an all time high. Two hundred year old universities found themselves building more and larger annexes; new dorms, halls, and libraries in desperate competition against hipstery upstarts.
Smarter women wanted smarter men. The NFL took a beating by Jeopardy, Family Feud and all manner of random trivia shows; and all the while Ebele’s fame skyrocketed, so much so that she had very little time for the fish anymore, or people, or kindness, not after ten years as C.E.O of Curves, the leading fashion magazine in the world.
Learning ruthlessness hadn’t come easy, learning to think in figures instead of feelings neither. Ebele kept telling herself that it was a process, wedging her way into the inner circle to change it from the inside out. She convinced herself she hadn’t forgotten who she was or where she came from, and all the while, day after day, her Mami Wata tattoo itched while Ebele scratched.
She was losing weight. There was plenty of money for food, and plenty of food, but nothing stuck, and she had scratched her tattoo raw. Mami Wata’s beautiful face had a nasty rash that spread down her cleavage along Ebele’s crack and made her fidget on her chair, plagued by hemorrhoids.
The looks of concern turned to grins of contempt around 160lbs. She couldn’t stand the sight of herself. Her staff doubted her judgment based on her appearance, getting theirs for all the people she’d fired offhand. The upper crust still attended her parties where she’d stuff her itchy self until she threw up. That’s when the rumors of anorexia started. Ebele Onodugo was trying to lose weight.
No one would touch her anymore. She couldn’t handle the paparazzi. She was scratching in public and the headlines didn’t miss a beat: Is the Queen of Curves scratching her ass off?
She bought out the entire flight on South African Airways to Lagos just to avoid the stares and cushion her seat with ice packs. She requested the crew leave her alone at all times and didn’t open her eyes until she landed in Africa.
Home is a combination of things, but mostly it’s the taste of the air and the tiny human moments when the sun sets. It’s true everywhere and different all the same. That’s why home is unique; and for the first time in years, her tattoo didn’t itch, soothed by the salty waters of the Gulf.
She’d been drawn to the water since she’d stepped out of the terminal at Murtala Muhammad, her face reflected back at her from Glo billboards on the overpass. But it wasn’t her face anymore. She’d lost more weight on the flight somehow, ditched her sunglasses upon landing, traded a Gucci coat for a yellow-dotted green head wrap, and flagged the first cab waiting before the crew busted her cover.
It was her first time alone in years. The constant slew of sycophants and gold diggers had taken its toll on her ability to take a step back and center herself around who she was. She had sought this emptiness in vain, but now even the waters were empty, even the fish had shunned her, and their absence ached against her now painless back.
The sun reflected through the surface. She’d let the currents rock her adrift to sleep, a wave had overturned her mattress. Her skinny appendages couldn’t carry her back to shore, and the golden halo simmering into the depths mingled with the brown, orange, green and red swirls of her tattoo melting into the Gulf, wrapping her in a cocoon of fractal colors in between the shade of rainbows, the meddling iridescence of the world hidden within our own.
At least she would remain a mystery: Ebele Onodugo as Carmen Sandiego, Ahab’s elusive black whale turned black eel. No one would know where she’d gone. They would follow her to Lagos, maybe even to the beach, and all they would be left with was the sunset.
The air in her lungs ran its final laps around her system. Another thirty seconds, maybe a minute and she would open her mouth to let it out, and the waters fill her in. The colors merged, changed and faded. They pulled away from her and into the crown of sunlight, each thread distinct like a half woven rug, or a fisherman’s net. And just as she was about to give up the ghost, a voice she attributed to her dying consciousness said: Where d’you think you’re going? and thick cords cut into her fleshless form and yanked her out of the water.
His face was unshaven and his left eye lazy. His gut, sticking out under his wife-beater paraded a belly button full of hair, and his smile, if indeed he was smiling, was a chess board of the cheaper kind, the kind where the wood on the edges flaked off like the skin on his sun burnt lips. His hands were callused and rough as he rolled her out of the sticky net, before feet alternating hard corn and bunions like keys on a piano.
“Mmuommiri girl! You think you Mami Wata?”
He laughed heartily.
Sweet, and homely, just as herself.
Image byAïda Muluneh via African Digital Arts
About the Author:
Mame Bougouma LP Diene is a French-Senegalese American development worker based in Paris, with a fondness for progressive metal, tattoos and policy analysis. He was previously published in Omenana, and will feature in Afro SF V2 later in 2015.