Playing By Their Rules

Editor's note: Toke Odimayomi earned an honorable mention in the Synapse Storytelling Contest Creative Writing category.

When you’re five, everything’s a game. So why would this be any different? We were packing the last of our things to leave for good. I knew it, my mom knew it, and my uncle who was driving us to the airport knew it, but no one else knew, not even grandma. I could tell because when I hugged her really hard, she didn’t hug me back quite as hard.

My sister didn’t know either because she was too little to play and she wouldn’t understand the rules. My mom had been reminding me of these rules for weeks.

Rule #1: don’t tell anyone that we’re not coming back. And I hadn’t! Not my best friend or my teacher or my neighbor who gave me sour candies. I wasn’t about to break this rule now. So when I let go of my grandma, I just smiled back up at her as she said “Mo feran yin. Se omo dada.” “I love you. Be a good girl.”

I waved goodbye to my aunties, my cousins, and my grandma as the red dirt swirled into the air under the wheels of our car. The sounds of the Alhajis beckoning people into their shops to buy the newest goods from the UK and America faded away along with my village. Of course I was going to miss them, but I was too excited about our new adventure to dwell on that for too long.

I sat up with pride knowing I had followed Rule #1 for so many weeks. But the game was about to get harder. Now instead of saying nothing, I had to say something…something that I knew was a lie.

As we walked into the Lagos airport, I clung to the little purse my mom had made to match my dress, which she had also made for this special occasion. Running my hand over its pink satin gave me a bit of comfort. (Even now, 20 years later, I still feel an inexplicable sense of peace when I pull that purse out of its hiding place.)

Although I wanted to hold my mom’s hand much more than any purse, I knew she was too busy with my little sister, our bags, and her own fear to have any extra hands for me. So I clung to my purse, looked down, and decided to stay quiet. After all, you couldn’t break a rule if you never had to use it.

By the time we had gone through most of the airport checkpoints, I began to relax a little. No one had asked the question and I started to feel like no one would. As we walked by the lady checking tickets, I beamed up at her with the contentment that only a child can have.

Unable to resist the joy of a five-year-old, she broke into a smile and asked, “Where are you going? Who are you visiting?” I froze. Took a deep breath. And flashed her my biggest smile. “We’re going to America to visit my uncle. We will be back soon,” I replied.

Rule #2. Check. I had told a lie. The biggest lie I had ever told in my whole five years of life. The one I had been practicing with my mom for almost a year. If anyone asked who we were going to visit or where we were going, I was supposed to say to see my uncle (who was actually my dad) and that we were coming back to Nigeria (when we had no intension of returning).

As we carried our luggage past the last security desk, my mom gave my hand a squeeze and I let out a breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding. The game was almost over and I had never been so happy to know that a game was about to end. But there was still one more rule to follow.

Rule #3: stay quiet and keep your sister quiet. I figured it couldn’t be that hard to keep a three-year-old happy. So I let my sister sit next to our mom on the airplane and I let her pick all the movies we watched, even Teletubbies.

I refused to sleep myself until I knew she was fast asleep. Eventually they both fell asleep, my mom quickly and my sister slowly as if fighting to not miss a second of our new adventure. I looked at my sister one more time to make sure she wouldn’t wake up and carefully pulled her blanket up around the both of us, knowing it was finally ok to go to sleep.

Rule #3 was a piece of cake, until we landed in the US and arrived at customs. It was then that the officer kept asking questions. So many questions. I didn’t dare speak and I squeezed by sister’s hand to remind her that she shouldn’t make a sound either. But it was late, she was tired, and she was in a new place where nothing looked or sounded quite right, not even the English we had grown up speaking. So she started to cry, big fat toddler tears. I didn’t know what to do so I just hugged her as hard as I could.

As she continued to cry, my mom scooped her up, held her tight, and grabbed hold of my hand. When I looked up at my mom’s determined face, I realized I wasn’t alone in this game.

The officer soon let us go and we walked out into the Indiana fall of 1998. We made it. We were finally here. My eyes roamed everywhere, taking in every detail, forming a memory that would last a lifetime. The leaves whistling their welcome were colors I had only seen before in my crayon box. The cars, in just as many colors, flew on roads high above my head.

There were so many oyinbo people that I couldn’t help but look down at my own skin to make sure it hadn’t become many shades lighter. And then I saw him. As he stepped out of his green Honda, I ran towards him with all my might. My best friend. The person I had missed more than words could describe. My dad. I jumped into his outstretched arms and hoped he would never let me go.

Before I knew it, we were all packed into his car and headed for our new home.

I didn’t know it then, but things wouldn’t always be easy. My dad would remain “my uncle” for many more years. We wouldn’t always have food in the fridge. There wouldn’t always be Christmas presents under the tree. But just for that day, everything was perfect.

As I cuddled with the stuffed dog my dad had given me in one arm and a bottle of American soda in the other, I drifted off to sleep knowing I had won the ultimate game prize, my family.

Dedicated to all the children who had to play the game and especially to those who never won their prize.