The blazing mid-day sun hangs like a huge lantern in the tropical sky. Mom’s sleek Sienna glides through the imposing wrought-iron gate held open by a uniformed guard. It is yet another Saturday.
As we step out in the parking lot, we’re greeted by the strident noise of traffic. Mom is the last to slam shut her door. She presses the petite remote in her slender tapering hand. We strain to hear the beep, that familiar sound that assures us the car is locked. It comes all right, but very faint; the traffic is deafening.
My kid sister Zoe and I regard the forbidding façade of Don Smiley’s dental clinic. Overlooking Gerard Road, a partial boulevard in Lagos, it is mottled with sunlight and blooms with bougainvillea and jasmine and morning glory amid a profusion of greenery. (It is a three-storey building. Smiley’s practice is exactly at the topmost floor. The rest of the floors are for a beauty parlor and spa owned by Smiley’s Nigerian wife Adaku.)
I follow in Mom’s wake. She moves with a brisk trot. I glance over my shoulder at Zoe as she totters far behind, my boots crunching on the gravel.
Suddenly I halt, ambivalent. But Mom leaves me no choice; I must keep my appointment with our family dentist: four fillings, two extractions. Zoe must keep hers too. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know the purpose of the visit. But I do.
Yesterday afternoon, while Zoe was away at school, I overheard Mom and Dad. They argued and argued—over a searing pot of coffee—in our living room. The rich aroma wafted to my bedroom. It teased my nostrils as I stepped out of the shower, wooly towel around my waist. I hid behind the door, holding it ajar, listening . . .
“But she’s only a kid,” Dad said. “Kids will be kids. All the fat will be burnt by the time Zoe hits puberty, you’ll see.”
“Granted, she’s only a kid,” Mom said. “But I’ll not fold my arms and watch our only daughter drag her gluttony and obesity and crooked teeth into adulthood.”
“Did you say crooked teeth? Zoe’s teeth are not crooked, Liz.”
“Fine, they’re not. What about all the dollops of fat underneath her skin? I’m going to teach Zoe how to eat like a lady before it’s too late. Her over-indulgence in candy and sweets and cakes must stop. But, before I begin, I must get Don to put braces on her.”
Dad must have taken a long pull at his coffee at this point. I imagined it spreading like fire through his burly frame. “Why braces, Liz?” he said. “You do agree with me that her teeth are not crooked.”
“They’re not crooked, all right. But we all know they don’t align?”
“Liz, from the way you sound, I’m sure you’ve consulted Smiley already on Zoe’s behalf.”
“Are you sure she’s got the guts to fix those wires? Have you told her?”
“I decided not to do that. I know Zoe. I tell her about her extractions and fillings, but this very case is a different one—and must be treated differently.”
“Are you kidding me?” Dad said, his voice rising to a wild shriek. “You mean, this case was subjected to such matters as x-rays and molds and impressions—and neither you nor Smiley explained anything at all to my daughter? Nothing whatsoever was explained to an innocent twelve-year-old about the procedure? Is that what you’re telling me, Liz?”
In the ensuing silence Mom, exasperated, must have put down her steaming mug with a thud, then sprung to her feet and turned to Dad. I imagined her lips pushed forward in a pout of frustration.
“Why don’t you forget about this for now, Liz?” Dad said, calming down. “Zoe can fix braces by herself when she’s old enough, after all.”
“No way, Chima!”
Mom must have swung sharply round to face Dad again. I imagined her blue eyes spitting fire, her blond hair floating around her flushing face.
“I say, no way. If she doesn’t get it fixed now that she’s a little girl, she’s not going to fix it when she becomes an adult!”
Dad, on the other hand, must have taken a healthy swig, certainly deflated. He usually ends this way whenever he’s defeated in an argument with Mom, a feisty, glib English wife whom he nonetheless loves very much.
Mom has absolute faith in Smiley’s orthodontist’s certificate from Leeds. She therefore arranges all our dental appointments in Nigeria with either Smiley or no other dentist.
Back in the parking lot, rooted in place and regarding the façade of the building, my mind is seized by the taunting thought of the dentist’s hammer and chisel. The deafening drone of his monstrous drilling machine worsens my sense of devastation. I shake off the fear that grips me, like a shaggy dog shaking off water. Then, gathering my sense of bravado, I begin to watch the play of light and shadow as sunlight filters through the rustling leafy domes of a couple of gigantic mango trees beside the mighty house.
As the brutal sun scorches the earth beneath my feet, I turn again to make sure Zoe is fine. Incredulous, I draw a long breath and gaze at her. She is not just fat, she is obese—as though I’m just realizing it. Nonetheless, I love her; she is my sister, my only sister.
Zoe Ejiogu is so fat. This is a sentence I hate to voice as it has long become a cliché among family and friends. Now it is a song sung by some of her mischievous classmates. Strangely, she doesn’t give a hoot. But Mom and Dad and I certainly do. Perhaps our pet dog Rosie, a fine-looking collie, does too.
Zoe is Rosie’s best friend. The lassie fondly coos at the collie, like a pigeon, in the cozy warmth of our living room. The collie, lost in ecstasy, prances and pants about, wagging her entire rear end, as the cooing lasts. Everyday the lassie reaches out to lovingly stroke the collie’s long thick fur. In fact, Zoe gives Rosie more attention than the rest of us ever will.
Even Rosie knows that Zoe cannot resist the temptation when faced with candies and sweets and chocolates and cakes. They’re colorful, beckoning, inviting, Zoe will say, rolling her eyeballs with a flourish. Frosty cakes are her favorite. She’ll dip her finger umpteen times into the icing, then scoop out very large clumps into her waiting mouth—and into Rosie’s too, who drools as she keenly regards Zoe in eager expectation.
As I gaze at my sister, I notice she is making a great effort to walk to me—not necessarily because of her weight, but because of the waves of gloom beating against her.
Standing by my side now, she rolls frightened eyes at me. To soothe the rough edges of my nerves, I heave a sigh, towering several inches above her. She takes my hand, hoping to find solace in its warmth. Her rotund face is indeed a doleful mask. Her frilly dress flaps about in the faint intermittent breeze.
I’m not the least surprised to see the fear etched on her face. Zoe simply doesn’t like dentists. I don’t, either. And, particularly, she hates Don Smiley. She doesn’t find it funny, the way he prods around her mouth with his forceps, the formidable implements he loves to brandish somewhat roguishly before the quivering eyes of his patients.
“Why does Mom like bringing us to Smiley’s, Bob?” Zoe asks in a whisper as we begin to trudge languidly, far behind Mom. “Why am I coming along in the first place? You have the aches, not me.”
Tactfully silent, I look at her, my toothaches beginning to get the better of me. My eyes nonetheless flicker with deep concern as her face becomes a waterfall.
“Ain’t we old enough to choose our own dentists?” she says between sobs. “Or is Smiley the only dentist in Lagos?”
“Mom prefers to bring us to Smiley’s,” I manage to say, “simply because she and Smiley are British, each with a Nigerian spouse.”
I reach out and give Zoe a pat at the back. How can I let her know that the same terror assails me? Unlike her, though, I know what I’m here for. I don’t want to cry like her, or I’ll feel like a sissy. Real boys don’t cry, let alone now that I’m big and about to go to Oxford. Besides, I’ve had fillings and extractions in the past—her as well.
Fixing her shimmering eyes on mine, she sniffles. “It’s because both of them come from Yorkshire.”
“Thanks for narrowing it down, Zoe—for being more exact.”
“But Dad can stop us from going to Smiley’s.”
“He can find another dentist for us, a good one . . . one who can smile, at least. This one’s name is Smiley, yet he hardly smiles. Fancy that.”
I refuse to repress a giggle, hoping it’ll cause my bravado to soar higher and not to plummet. I stretch a hand towards her head and fondly rub her mane, a generous mass of russet Anglo-African curls, like mine—but long, and as soft as silk. I giggle again. “Dentists are hard to come by in Nigeria, Zoe.”
“But, Bob, why must I come along when I’ve got no aches?”
“There’s no one to stay with you at home perhaps.”
“Rosie is there.”
“I mean a human being, an older person.”
“I want to go back to England,” she mumbles, looking away sullenly, wiping her tears. “Nigeria sucks.”
“I agree with you, Zoe. Three years so far spent in this part of the world is like a hundred years in hell . . . But we have no choice, because life here seems to be a lot easier for Mom and Dad.”
“Ain’t you lucky, Bob? You’ll soon leave Nigeria for Oxford.”
Catching the sound of our mother’s impatient clapping, her usual way of signaling us to hurry, we’re wordlessly reminded that we’re not alone. We turn to look at her as she scowls at us through her designer sunglasses.
Tall and willowy, Mom is wearing a yellowish blouse tucked neatly into a powder-green pleated skirt. It swirls splendidly around her clean legs—straight legs that are smooth and soft, like a baby’s. Her eyes, hidden behind the dark shades, are fringed with dark lashes which she thickens every morning with mascara. Her hair, golden in the sunlight, is pulled back into a huge sleek bun; her lips are discreetly outlined in glossy cherry lipstick.
We pant up to her.
“Bob,” she says, her voice quiet but firm, “I don’t think I should remind you again that, at eighteen, you’re no longer a kid. You’re now a full-fledged adult. Some of your peers are already in the university, utterly in charge of their lives, far away from kith and kin.”
As she daintily dabs her face with a cambric handkerchief, I wonder why she should go this far with her reprimand when I have just a couple of days to hit Oxford.
“But if you want me to keep treating you like an unruly kid,” she continues to my irritation, “I’d be obliged to. You and Zoe have a way of getting under my skin, especially when you drag me behind.”
I pluck some courage and peer into her eyes. I can see the wildness all around them, in spite of the dimness of the sunglasses that rest precariously on her long aristocratic nose. A faint redness has crept into the pallor of her cheeks. I can see it too, despite her rouge. Certainly, there is a decisiveness lurking in her no-nonsense voice. Isn’t it therefore rather wise not to make a retort at the moment, I think? I give her a grin of faux contrition instead, my eyes swaying with a feeling that borders on mortification.
(Everyday Zoe and I wish Mom’s voice sounded benevolent. There are many moms in our idyllic neighborhood whose voices sound so much so. Their children, who are friends with us, tend to be reduced to a motley school of trembling jelly fishes whenever they visit and hear Mom’s voice. All of us, put together, wish her voice were as soft as a zephyr—even if just once.)
Mom peels off the dark shade from her eyes and bends over to speak to Zoe. As she fastens her flinty stare on Zoe, those blue eyeballs of hers look menacing. Deeply seated in the safety of their sockets, they tingle with palpable displeasure. Lifting her penciled brows most expressively, she ignores Zoe’s streaming tears.
“And look here, you,” she says, boring her eyes into Zoe’s, wagging a stern finger at her. “You must make Daddy proud when he comes back from his business trip. You always say you want to be like Mommy. I’ll say it to you yet again that if you want to grow to become a lady, like Mommy, you must learn to comport yourself and walk like one—not like a drunk slothful fool.”
Zoe swallows. As she looks attentively at Mom, her eyes flicker with more fear than respect.
“If you don’t start today, at age twelve, to learn the ways of a lady,” Mom continues, “you may never in your life be able to learn them. Have I made myself clear, Zoe?”
Zoe gives a nod. Looking down, she clasps and unclasps her bear-like hands, waiting for Mom to clip her ear, like she usually does whenever she is cross with her. Then she raises her head and gives Mom another wary look. Of course, Zoe knows, Mom is amiable and without vice—but she can be full of whims most times.
Quickly, Mom tucks the sunglasses into a nook of her roomy leather handbag. She begins to climb the stairs like a mother hen frantically making the last-ditch effort to take her chicks out of harm’s way.
The stairs appear long today, I think. Zoe and I climb them, like we’re climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, and my palms begin to sweat. I reach out and hold Zoe’s hand. I feel even worse upon the grim realization that she has been battling with a profusion of sweat too.
“It’s like having a part of you torn away by Smiley—against your will,” she says, obviously making a conscious effort to have us engaged in another hushed conversation.
I turn to look at her with a wry smile. “But yours is not extraction.”
“I really don’t know what it is, although I’ve been here for x-ray and all sorts.”
I put my chin on her shoulder and finally breathe into her ear: “Mom wants you to wear braces.” Suddenly I find myself drowning in guilt. “You’d better keep it to yourself.”
Her eyes widen; her jaw drops; and her eyeballs seem to pop out.
I shake off the guilt like a seal does water after swimming ashore. Regarding her eyes as they glisten with receding tears in the fluorescent light, I venture another whisper: “Mom says you’re this fat because you’re a glutton. She wants you to eat less of those sugary foods. She desperately wants to burn those fats and save your teeth, Zoe.”
Clutching at the wrought-iron railing, she stops abruptly and casts a sour glance at Mom. I can feel the bitter disappointment trickling though her. Her stomach, I suppose, feels like a malevolent hand took hold of it and twisted it.
I stop too, regarding her sad eyes as they begin to water afresh.
Out of the blue, she chuckles derisively. Then she glares at nothing in particular, pouting, her features contorting almost out of recognition. “Glutton. Fat. Slug. Doddery. Abnormal . . . whatever. She has shot those names at me many times—like fiery darts. Well, sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me! Besides, I have thick skin, so the names don’t even penetrate.”
I behold the copious tears. My emotions wobble, groaning, beneath the enormous weight of sympathy. I swallow. “You see, Zoe—”
Mom stamps her foot indignantly to get our attention. Panic flits briefly in our eyes as she glares at us. She is now standing at the entrance, where the stairs terminate.
As we await another verbose chastening, she begins to stomp about wordlessly, arms flailing. She is bristling with a mixture of annoyance and frustration. Her patience, we see, is tightly stretched.
Still looking at her, feeling like we’re watching a pantomime, we begin to hustle up the remaining flight of stairs.
“Hurry,” she says at last, lowering her voice. “I have several places to go to, besides the grocer’s . . . Zoe, I keep warning you, you must stop behaving like a doddery old woman . . . hurry, I say to you both!”
“Yes, Mom,” Zoe and I say in unison, bounding up to her.
Ignoring Zoe’s feeble protests, Mom opens the door and steers her into the waiting room while I follow.
The familiar, chilling smell of antiseptic hangs in the air. A few people sit around wearing a motley variety of expressions. I see a couple of little children seated as well, their legs dangling from the chairs. They’re Smiley’s patients too, I think, or their elder siblings and/or parents are.
We choose our seats and settle down to wait for Smiley’s assistant, Tinu Ayuba. As always, a row of sleek, colorful dental photos and diagrams hang on the wall facing us. One of them advises that we brush our teeth at least twice daily. Another advocates flossing, highlighting with emphasis why we must floss.
We regard a big white board on another wall in a far corner. Upon it a diagram of the canine tooth is drawn, and thoroughly labeled with a blue marker. That board never leaves, I muse. As Zoe and I begin to stare at it, taking in the details of the human tooth, Mom leaps to her feet as if stung by a bee.
“I have to get going now,” she says, darting hasty, matter-of-fact glances at me, at Zoe, and back again. “Bob, take good care of your sister. Smiley is very busy, I can see. But I’ll call him. Anyway, I hope you’ll be ready to go back home by the time I’m back.”
Watching her leave, we feel like two helpless kittens left exposed to some ravenous animal as their mother looks for food.
As Zoe seems to wonder yet again why she is here, an Indian girl trots to her. The girl wears a jaunty air, obviously ready to leave with her mother.
“Hi, Zoe,” she says and breaks into a wide grin, baring a mouthful of azure braces. “What’re you doing here?”
Her sleek black hair cascades below her shoulders. Her forehead, I observe, doesn’t have that garish bindi that rests on her mother’s.
To my surprise, Zoe says not a word. Instead she keeps peering at the girl’s braces like they’re a big joke. She makes a face, seemingly wanting to scream for help.
Suddenly she begins to sob, to the consternation of the Indian lassie. Then she buries her face in her lap. “Please, Sunita . . . I think you . . . you have to go now,” she stutters ruefully from beneath a bent head. “I want to remain alone with my brother. I’ll . . . I’ll make it up for you. Please, I promise . . . I’m . . . I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right, Zoe,” the girl says. “But I’d like you to look up. I’ve got something cool for you.”
Truly, the Indian girl’s face looks as if she really did yearn for those wires.
“Zoe, look up—please,” she insists.
Zoe obeys, albeit reluctantly.
Immediately, the girl makes a scathing grimace, crossing her eyeballs. She juts her jaw, brings out her tongue, and wags it at Zoe, reminding me of Rosie. Then she turns to look at me uncouthly. Smiling malevolently, shaking her head slowly, she rolls her eyes, meaning probably: that’s what your fat sister deserves—my kind of braces.
An awful gust of dismay and puzzlement begins to whirl my insides as I watch her catwalk to her mother, obviously feeling proud—like a peacock.
Her mother is now waiting at the door. She must be wondering what’s going on, I muse.
“Who’s she?” I whisper to Zoe, looking at mother and daughter as they take their leave.
“My classmate,” Zoe mumbles. “Sunita Krishna.” She puts her face back in her lap, so that her voice is muffled again. “She told me two weeks ago that her parents would take her for braces. Since then I’ve been taunting her, telling her how painful it was going to be. But she didn’t seem to care.”
I want to unleash a loud peal of laughter but quickly decide against it. I stare at the door which the Indians have just shut behind them. “How could she do that when she doesn’t even know what you’re here for?”
Zoe raises her head. She looks around to be sure that Sunita has disappeared. “I don’t know,” she mumbles, obviously awash with a strong wave of relief. “Maybe she’s a seer—like the one we saw in that movie last Saturday.”
I chuckle. “Sunita Krishna, that rude one, can’t be stronger than you, Zoe . . . C’mon, girl—if a girl as thin as her can face braces, you can do much better. Brace yourself for your own braces.”
“I’ll try, Bob,” she whimpers, staring somewhat helplessly at me. “Only if I had known earlier.”
In the ensuing silence, I begin to take a furtive look at Zoe. Her cheeks are now dry. I sigh.
She looks around and then flinches abruptly.
“Are you all right, Zoe?”
She says not a word to me as her eyes lock with those of a boy in the corner.
The boy’s age, in my estimation, hovers around Zoe’s. He’s well-dressed, dark, and handsome, a pair of thick glasses resting on his African nose. Sandwiched between a portly bearded man wearing a checkered shirt tucked into his jeans and a beautiful fair-skinned woman, he doesn’t want to avert his gaze on Zoe. The couple, I suspect, are his folks.
A huge grin, like that of a circus clown, spreads across his oblong face. With an unabashed wink, he waves discreetly at Zoe. His teeth are like tiny pearls. Peeking through his fat lips, they’re tied with the dread stainless-steel wires! He must be here for an adjustment appointment, I think.
I turn to take another furtive look at Zoe. Her face has acquired an ashen pallor. She tears her embarrassed eyes away from the youngster’s. She looks like she is asking God, mentally, to shrivel her into nothingness—or better yet, transport her to another planet.
Smiling, I give her a nudge. At least that will cheer her up. “You’re indeed a star, Zoe!” I whisper jokingly. “I can’t believe that another kid has spotted you!”
“That’s Yomi Cole,” she mumbles with a clearly leaden heart, still looking away, staring at nothing. “He’s our school chess champion. He’s in my class too—and he’s been asking me to be friends with him.”
“And what did you tell him?”
“That I don’t make friends with girls who wear braces, let alone boys with the same dreadful wires.”
“I see.” I give a couple of thoughtful nods.
“I make fun of all my classmates with braces, and now it’s like the rest of them are on their way to this place to have their last laughs.”
“Well,” I shrug, wondering if its meant to be a confession, “they don’t know what you’re here for.”
“In any case, they’ll all see my braces on Monday.”
I pray for wisdom. “It doesn’t matter, Zoe—provided you apologize to them.”
“I want to go home, Bob.”
“C’mon, Zoe—you’re looking at me like I have the key to Mom’s car. Even if Mom had left the key, I can’t drive very well—and, assuming I can, I don’t have a license.”
“Rosie is lonely,” she whimpers, ignoring what I just said. “She needs me.”
I look into her eyes. They are screwed up with mortification. She really wants to go home. She is immensely troubled. As far as she is concerned, there is a huge possibility that, any moment from now, the door will fling wide open, and all her classmates with assorted types of braces will pour into this waiting room to claw at her, to torment her life, like a horde of little devils.
I know she has made a gritty determination not to take one more look at Yomi Cole.
Zoe has certainly failed to live up to her reputation as an ever-cheerful chatterbox, I reckon.
* * * *
We’re the only patients left in the waiting room.
I look at the rectangular clock hanging on the wall. The minutes agonizingly tick away. It is 4:30 p.m. Mom, I think, is held up in the congested Lagos traffic—or so it seems. Smiley closes at 6:00pm.
I look at Zoe. Gazing listlessly into space, she is sunk in her inner misery. Obviously, she is suffering in silence the awful pangs of betrayal. She might as well be praying to God to stop the dread avalanche of those little vindictive devils in her class.
Suddenly we see ourselves watching in horror as the very last patient before us, a lanky fellow, reels out of Smiley’s consulting room. He holds his mouth with both hands as if all his teeth will otherwise fall out. As his boots clatter on the polished ceramic tiles, like those of a drunkard staggering home from a local pub, my palms break out again in an instant sweat.
My bravado takes a nosedive, and my heart beats itself to death. I look at my sister. Our eyes meet. She is also having a hard time catching her breath.
She cringes as soon as Tinu pops her head from behind the door.
“Zoe Ejiogu!” Tinu’s tenor voice echoes in the waiting room.
But Zoe’s butt seems to be glued to her seat.
“Come with me, Bob,” Zoe says instead, looking at me closely, entreating tears rolling down her pale cheeks like rivulets.
Taken aback, I look into her shimmering eyes. “Come with you? But Smiley won’t let me . . . Go. Just go.”
She casts a defiant glance at a waiting Tinu. “I’m going nowhere.”
I squeeze her hand. Her pulse is racing. “Mom will not hear of this, Zoe . . . Go, I say.”
She does not budge.
And before we know it, Smiley comes out and Zoe staggers to her feet, followed by me.
There are tiny beads of perspiration on the dentist’s forehead, in spite of the cooling effect of the air-conditioning units. Obviously worn out, he’s wearing a fresh pair of surgical gloves, and there are tell-tale stains of blood on his white coat.
Zoe and I stare at the stains with furtive distaste.
Like Mom, this bulky man is English, blond, with unwavering blue eyes. Sometimes I wonder if he and Mom are related in some way, besides the fact that they both hail from the north of England.
He glides to a stop, towering above us. Middle-aged, he is clean-shaven and his face is smooth like velvet. As he looks at me in bewilderment, then at Zoe, I feel like David standing before Goliath. I wonder how Zoe must feel.
“Do either of you have a problem?” he says, his booming voice betraying his impatience. It booms deeper than a giant’s, like the rumbling of thunder—and his British accent is unmistakably evident.
Zoe and I feel his unwinking gaze pierce us. We say not a word. Instead, we begin to stare blankly at the floor. We feel like cowards. But then I raise my eyes a little. Through the corners, I catch a glimpse of him as he turns to look at Tinu.
“What’s going on Miss Ayuba?” he says. “Which of the two siblings did you just call?”
“Zoe Ejiogu, sir . . . She doesn’t want to come in.”
He straightens himself to his full height. Then he fastens his eyes on Zoe, his face expressionless.
“Come on, kid,” he says, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. “Don’t waste my time. I just hope both of you are going to be the last patients today.”
“Look,” Smiley continues, “I’m totally exhausted. And I must be through with you before your mother comes back.”
Zoe looks up at the great head poised above her. I’m sure she has succeeded in plucking enough audacity to say to his face, Go rot in hell, Dr. Smiley! I hate you!
She says calmly, her dark eyes beseeching, “I’m scared, sir. Let my brother come in with me.”
After a moment’s silence, the dentist surprises me by shrugging his okay, albeit reluctantly. Then he gives me an acknowledging nod.
Gathering my sense of bravado again, I totter behind Zoe and Tinu while Smiley takes the lead.
* * * *
In the almost palpable hush of Smiley’s room, I stare at Zoe in utter amazement as she stomps out, crashing the door behind her, wailing in pain like a just-circumcised baby boy. Flashing the wires at me, at that grave moment, is an impractical thing to do, I think. And, who knows, she might be disappointed in me—for failing to rescue her from the hulk.
In the initial course of the procedure, she protested. She attempted several times to wriggle free. Vehemently. Perhaps she’d have run away if she had succeeded. But as my nostrils twitched at the unfamiliar odors of tooth polish and adhesive primer and cement, I was safe in the comforting fact that Zoe felt hopelessly trapped in that chair because of Smiley’s intimidating size. His bulk was well over her as he went on with his implements, unflustered.
Realizing that her strangled cries and intermittent shrill yelps were of no avail, a furious Zoe gave in at last, seemingly bottling up some kind of anger and bitterness which, I believe, will soon be unleashed on either Mom or Smiley himself—or both.
I look furtively at Tinu. She is simply waiting for me—as expressionlessly as her master. And without uttering a word, without even looking at the slammed door, Smiley motions me to his patients’ special chair.
I obey, and, at a sign from him, Tinu winds the chair back till my entire form takes a semi-prone position. Then she resumes her waiting, holding my head in her hands like she wants to crush my skull—instead of cradling it with some degree of tenderness.
Quickly, the dentist changes his gloves and moves for those grisly instruments of his. Standing close to me, he fills the long syringe and squirts the liquid ceilingward a few times before starting on me.
“Open,” he says.
Knowing what he means, I open my mouth. Wide.
“You’ve had this done on you twice or so before, young man,” he says matter-of-factly, and I feel the glittering needle going in. “With this, you know, there won’t be any pain.”
Swiftly, he depresses the plunger. I close my eyes, feeling nothing. Without warning, he begins to twist and tug away with a pair of forceps.
Then his phone, crouching like some beast on his large desk, gives a shrill cry.
And as soon as Tinu goes to pick the receiver, a wave of relief surges through my skull.
It is Mom.
Tinu tells her they’re almost done and, after a moment’s silence, replaces the receiver.
“Mrs. Ejiogu is on her way back, sir—and very close,” Tinu says to a busy Smiley.
“Fine,” the dentist says with a nod, his bulk and his coat looming over me.
* * * *
I stagger to the waiting room, feeling very strange, my hands cupping my mouth.
To my alarm, Zoe is out of sight.
Wondering where she could be, I take a seat and begin to pan my eyes along the row of educative diagrams. I stop at the glossy white board. Written boldly on it with a blue marker are the words: I HATE YOU, SMILEY! SON OF A BITCH! I recognize the handwriting as Zoe’s and cringe.
Alarmed, I spring from the chair to get the foul words wiped off. But as I get hold of the duster, I change my mind. Smiley must see this, I think, because I also hate the son of a bitch and frankly wish he could just go rot in hell.
I walk back to the chair.
Zoe steps in from the staircase.
I want to ask her where she has been, but I cannot speak. Instead, I put my thumb up for her.
She smiles mildly. “It hurts, Bob.”
I nod dumbly, understanding. To her chagrin, I begin to convulse with soundless laughter. The wires, exactly like Sunita Krishna’s, kind of impede her speech.
She grimaces, wanting to cry.
I stop, and then she whispers: “Mom’s back and will be in here in a moment.”
I regard her as she darts to the board and drops the thick blue marker.
No sooner has she sat beside me when Mom enters and walks straight to us.
“Take this key, Bob,” she says without preamble, tossing her car key to me. “Both of you should go get into the car while I settle the bill with Don . . . Let me see your braces, Zoe?”
Zoe flashes her teeth with some effort. Stoically, she absorbs the pain.
“Good job,” Mom says, adjusting her handbag. “It’s painful all right, but just for a day or two. They’re tender now.”
In a jiffy, she disappears into Smiley’s consulting room.
As soon as we get to the parking lot, I look at the sky. A couple of eagles are gliding, basking in the mild heat of the setting sun. They remind me of a bunch of cheery children frolicking in an amusement park, utterly lost in their innocent juvenile world. The clouds, as white as wool, lazy as always, have stopped scudding. Docile, they remind me of a couple of gigantic bears, crouching, sleeping, snoring away . . .
Zoe calls my attention with a nudge. I look. She points to a nearby Prado. A smile, caustic, spreads across her features. “Take a look at that, Bob.”
I see the same hateful words written in blue marker. They’re also in bold caps—on the rear windscreen of the dentist’s car.
I put my thumb up again, looking at her. I wonder how she was able to do it without getting caught by the guards.
She winks and smiles wryly. I see two or three of her teeth, together with the droll wires, peeping at me again.
I do not laugh this time. Instead, I firmly decide that I’d appease, on her behalf, all her classmates with braces—beginning with Sunita Krishna and Yomi Cole.