Driving the Peugeot
That was the summer you learned to drive the Peugeot. Your father taught you on the undulating roads of that monstrous compound, large enough for a military base, but it wasn’t that at all. Instead, it was a hospital and seminary compound with all the staff and faculty houses and plenty of open land. The car smelled new after five years, plastic still on the seats. In the middle of his work day, your father came home for lunch and you practiced. Slowly letting your left foot off that tight clutch was the main thing. And accelerating opposingly and equally with the right foot, a kind of mechanical dance, or the car would lurch and the engine die. You caught on quickly, robbing the young man who worked in the kitchen of his entertainment. He had hoped to laugh at you a good while, several days, maybe most of the week, not meanly but openly as Nigerian young men had been laughing at you all of your life: “Marry me,” they would say, and you felt so white and flat-chested.
Your family’s house was one of the newer ones. Only much later would you learn that it was fashioned like the houses on the University of Nigeria campus in Nsukka, in Igbo land. You weren’t there. You were in Yoruba land, in the huge town of Ogbomoso, on the other side of the Niger River. The Nigerian Civil War had just ended so the beautiful campus of the University of Nigeria was in ruins, and its beautiful poet, Christopher Okigbo, was dead. But none of that was in your story at the time. You were learning to drive the Peugeot, and the young man, Isaac, was watching from his bench in the shade of the umbrella tree, disappointed, no doubt, as you backed out of the carport, shifted into first gear and then second, and off you went with your father, a light dusting of sand lifting behind the Peugeot like the bridal gown of a ghost.
The car itself was a 1965 404-model sedan, cream colored, with the manual transmission on the column and a sweep speedometer, and that sleek and fitting image of a lion positioned dead center on the car’s grille. Peugeot made its entry into Nigeria in the mid-fifties when about a hundred of the 403 models were imported. The Peugeot was so reliable on Nigeria’s rough roads that its legend spread like a national anthem. That very summer, Automobile Peugeot of France made a proposal to Nigeria to create a manufacturing plant, and it was approved. If your family ever had a finer car, you certainly never had one that retained its pristine quality longer.
So it was still a marvelous car for your father to park in front of the house you lived in that summer, the house so like those at the destroyed University of Nigeria in Nsukka. All of those houses were reminiscent of the brick ranches fashionable in the US at the time. You walked into the living room and dining area. Down a hallway were nestled all the bedrooms and a bath. In the other direction was the kitchen and a breakfast nook. Except, the African houses were made of concrete brick and painted beautiful pastel colors inside. And there were lots and lots of windows for ventilation and light; they were all louvered and in the night when storms came, it was your father with his flashlight who got up and turned the handle that shut them against the rain though the smell could not be contained. The smell of the rain was in the room like the breath of the living God.
After the driving lessons, your father rode his bicycle back to work and you were allowed to drive the car around the compound. Sometimes you chauffeured your mother to see a friend, but often she did her work at home, in her study, where she wrote lessons for the Women’s Missionary Union of the Baptist church. Or she worked with Mrs. Adibempe, the seamstress, on the next season’s wardrobe. Or she received guests. You didn’t leave the compound because you didn’t have a license.
Nights were best of course, driving down to visit a friend at the far far end of the compound, passing beneath the teak trees, the moon up, the road reddish gray in the dim light, the windows down, that surprising cool of African nights during the rainy season, even at the equator, breezes lifting from the ground like air coming off a lake. What would it have felt like naked? You never knew.
You and your sister had come just for the summer, she the college student, you having completed eleventh grade in Arkansas. The summer before had been your last in Nigeria as a growing-up girl, born in this country to American missionaries. You and she were back visiting your parents in the same house you had shared with them before you got sent to their home but not yours, the USA. It was oddly precious being home, your room just as you had left it with the white ceramic cat on the headboard of your bed and the pink and orange curtains you had fashioned with your mother two years earlier out of fabric from the market, the Nigerian-made record player in the maroon case you played your records on. In the tenth grade—your last Nigerian year—you had listened to The White Album by the Beatles, but now it was Naturally by Three Dog Night, the song “Joy to the World” with the lyric “Jeremiah was a bullfrog.” If it didn’t make sense, you didn’t ask questions. Incongruity was a way of life now.
That year in Arkansas, for example, joining the pep squad. What you really wanted was to be a cheerleader, but there was no way you were going to get that. Cheerleading was like horseback riding, you had to be bred for it. It wasn’t something you started at seventeen and anyway, try-outs had happened the year before. Right away you should have known America was impossible. You couldn’t join up this late. You were out of the running. But you tried, which is something Nigerians like to say when you haven’t succeeded; it’s a sentence of pity. “You tried,” they’d say when you iced a cake and it was lopsided, or “you tried,” when you spoke a few words of halting Yoruba in church and felt proud of yourself.
You tried in the pep squad, wearing the short red romper over a white blouse with those necklaces made of itsy-bitsy beads you’d strung to be like every other white girl who had any hope. You grew your hair long and carried those skinny red pom-poms that were no competition at all for the boisterously full, gold pom-poms the cheerleaders shook down on the field while they kicked their legs up to heaven.
Every Thursday night of the fall months, you baked a delectable treat for a football player whose name had been given to you. The idea was to deliver it to his locker at the high school early Friday morning before he arrived, never leaving your name, only placing the gift there, neatly wrapped in foil like a sacrifice left at the shrine of a minor god. You were the nameless, faceless eunuch in the palace of football. And you drank it in because it was what you could do to have a place, any place at all in Arkansas. You went with the girlfriends to see Three Dog Night in Little Rock, standing for hours, your head nearly broken with the noise. And your friends leaving you to go drink beer, never asking you to join them, sensing you were too naïve to know how to behave properly at a rock concert. Though you had witnessed Nigerian initiations of boys into manhood and the boys were whipped and the women ululated and it went on for hours in the sun, nothing you had ever experienced was so damaging to your senses as this. There seemed a reason for the initiations. What reason was there for the anger of a rock concert? You couldn’t even make out the preposterous lyrics.
Driving the Peugeot was the sanest thing you did back in Nigeria. You had arrived unceremoniously in Lagos, taking that initial step out of the cool KLM airplane onto the deck of the moveable stairway and into the pelting heat of that coastal city. You were wearing a lavender two-piece outfit made of some horrible knit fabric and a scarf—which only made your face look rounder and bloated. And then you missed your first step and fell most of the way down, tearing your pale panty hose to shreds. You had just glimpsed your father on the other side of the fence that skirted the tarmac before you fell. A year before you had left him in the same spot, leaning into the wind, and you imagined him so grief-stricken he could barely stand. And now he was trying mightily to get to you, to help you up. But the Civil War had recently concluded. You couldn’t any more—as you once could—just walk willy-nilly onto the tarmac. There were rules now, and people got shot for disobeying or appearing to disobey or, really, for no reason at all. So, you picked yourself up, so disappointed after all you had done to appear normal and whole and happy, coming from America to visit your parents for three months.
Perhaps learning to drive made something up to your father for falling down those steps. Perhaps it started that way. But then it became something for you, those brief jaunts into the night, the sexiest you ever were in Nigeria. You had a kind of power behind the wheel, exploring the compound roads alone. The air brought goose bumps, almost like being kissed. No one really knew how long you drove. What could happen? You always got home by ten. Occasionally, you would see a Nigerian man walking, his robes fluttering in the night breeze or a missionary doctor with his flashlight, leaving the hospital late, or a woman seller with loads on her head who had cut through the compound, perhaps dashing the gatekeeper with a bit of roasted meat. She might have picked a guava from a low hanging branch on her way home. You could see the yellow fruits on those full moon nights.
What was it you desired in those weeks at home after the Nigerian Civil War, after an Arkansas year, back with your family with fewer days than the beads on those silly necklaces you had strung? What were you thinking between Three Dog Night and dieting (that was the summer you went for the gold, losing thirty pounds in ten weeks) and driving the Peugeot and waking later in the night to rain and your father closing the louvered windows but the smell already wrapping you, carrying you back to earliest memory?
A photograph was made midsummer. In it, you sit with your sister on a bench between two young Nigerian men. Your skirt is short and to keep your underwear from showing, you have cradled your hands in your lap. Even with the diet, your face is a little rounded, but your hair is pulled back becomingly and there’s a half smile on your face. What could you see that the photograph doesn’t show? Was there something you looked forward to later in the day? Did you feel some warmth toward the young man next to you? In the photograph, it’s apparent how handsome he was. Surely you weren’t yet thinking of returning to Arkansas and leaving your parents behind. You look a little dreamy, as if perhaps you’ve convinced yourself you won’t leave or you’ll lose so much weight, you’ll float away. The day you’re to drive with your sister and parents back to Lagos and the airport, they’ll look for you but you’ll be gone.
Summer was not the season of firing the land to clear it for next year’s planting, nor the period of harmattan when dust filled the air and chilled the morning temperatures. Instead it was the time of ripe fruit and cassava growing fat underground. It should have been your ripening time. You were seventeen. But you had no thoughts for any actual boy that summer and very little thought of any future. Where could a future occur?
If you went into town, your mother drove, the various establishments you visited all seeming more bush than the Nigeria you had left only a year earlier. Your parents had abandoned the Anglicized church across from the compound where only English was used and joined a town church where Yoruba was in full force. The benches had no backs; the floor was packed dirt; the concrete walls didn’t seem quite in alignment. The same with the little grocery. Before, you had never gone to a grocery in the town; your family drove to the city of Ibadan where there were skyscrapers and a bona fide university. This little store occupied a mud house, and your eyes had to adjust before you could make out the dusty cans of tuna fish and tomato paste. In an odd way, your mother seemed more at home in Africa than you ever remembered, as if she was just sinking into the land after twenty years while you had been ejected and were becoming an American, accustomed to white bathrooms and cream-colored hosiery and washing your hair every night. You were a little in awe of your mother and how comfortable she was in these places. She strode into the store in her dark glasses, her hair held back in a scarf. It seemed you had missed something altogether, some full maturation into your Africanness, and she was getting to have it instead.
You were in a languor that had set in when you were thirteen and you stopped being a child. If you had been an average Nigerian girl at thirteen, you would have had your hands full fetching water, looking after your mother’s younger children, or, if you were the youngest child, looking after your grandparents. There would have been fire-building and cooking. There was no such thing as adolescence in Nigeria. So, while you might have had a break from school, your life would have been full and brimming. You might have walked with your friends to the market, plaited your hair together, visited nearby relatives, riding in a mammy wagon or, perhaps, if your father were more well-to-do, a taxi, a Fiat or a Volkswagen. If you had been a wealthy Nigerian girl, you wouldn’t be living in Ogbomoso. You’d be in Lagos or Jos or Kaduna where you shopped in European stores. Your father might have built a swimming pool for the family. You would drive everywhere in a Mercedes or a BMW and you would not drive yourself. Your father would have a full-time driver to take you and your siblings to the movies or the club, and, when you came home, a gate-keeper would welcome you and the car would sweep smoothly into the family compound.
But your days were desultory because you were not expected to undertake such activities. Your parents had hired as their cook the young man who hoped to laugh at you learning to drive, as well as a steward who cleaned the house and a gardener and a laundry man.
You studied the trees, watching the pawpaw ripen and mango trees grow dense and threatening in their great canopies, and the higher irokos rise stately like giraffes. And you did not think. Because thinking meant awareness and awareness meant knowing how short the weeks were before, again, you must pack your bags, not this time for an inspecific America, but for a very specific Arkansas. No one, you imagined, had really missed you. You had not written a single letter to any of the girlfriends you had made the year before, though you had jumped in a car with them at lunchtime and driven frantically to Minuteman, a fast food restaurant devoted to hamburgers and pool tables, and you bought Hawaiian Punch and french fries because it was all you could afford on your budget of forty dollars a month, which was supposed to cover your wardrobe, your entertainment, and school lunch, if you chose to go out with your friends instead of eating in the cafeteria.
No. You did not want to think of going back—being assigned another football player and lining up for the school bus on Friday nights to be driven to the game; wearing your short red romper even if there was freezing rain in the forecast; driving around with your distant friends on Saturday nights, endlessly boy-hunting, though you hadn’t really comprehended the purpose at the time. You were always the first to ask someone, please, to take you home, which was not your home, but the home of a generous young couple who had invited you to live with them so your parents could stay in Nigeria, to be missionaries and work with refugees from the war, while you got ready for college in Arkansas. It was not a near future to dwell on.
You lived existentially that summer, though that word would not be in your vocabulary for five more years. And you weren’t gathering courage. You were in a waiting game with your parents. Would they really send you away again, to the United States, to live without them? Once, you might figure, could be an accident, a mistake, an oversight. Twice was one time too many. Two years in Arkansas was one year too many. It had been interesting at first, like people think going on a safari will be interesting. But it would not be interesting to go back, to smile at the athlete who would never call your name, to wake in the morning to windows that could not be opened because the air conditioning or heater was running, to circle the Minuteman in some friend’s ancient Impala with its huge toothy grill, the hood ornaments like jet fighters, the entire car reminiscent of some great, finned weapon.
Your mother asked one day if you were ready to leave.
“Go back to Arkansas.”
Your stomach churned.
“Sure,” you said and turned from her, walking out the backdoor, across the African grass to the guava tree, looking up into its slender, pink limbs.
Looking back, you wonder what might have happened had you taken the keys and left the compound, driving out toward the north, into the desert, beyond the life they planned.