Today, I am looking at my knees in a series of photographs from yesterday. They are, like my elbows, slightly darker than the skin around them. Somehow both knobby and amorphous, they are fleshy hinges without much definition. Sometimes they ache at random, now that I am over 30. They are not the only joints that grow angry and ache for days. They are not even the most painful. But an aching knee makes me feel oldest. It is an ache-as-emblem, reminding me of what has been and what is to come. I am happy with them now, but I could not have said this 20 years ago.
In middle school I worried over the darkness of my knees and elbows (and my lips, which have always been naturally brown, rather than pink). People attach their own connotations to this kind of brownness: you smoke; you’re roughened; you’re unscrubbed. The other girls I knew had liquid skin, no bumpy interruptions or rough notes, nothing suggesting wear or coarseness. They did not look like they’d been crawling. Their knees and elbows did not suggest they knew a world of scrapes or scabs or groveling.
One of them, a friend, once told me that if I rubbed lemon halves on my elbows, it would exfoliate any dry skin that may have been altering the elbow’s “natural” coloring. She did this once a week herself, she said. “It works.”
But I never tried it. At 13 I could not fathom weekly beauty regimens. I did not feel beautiful, so the practice didn’t seem worth it.
Such superficial concerns, worry over knees and elbows. I spent too many afternoons wondering if, in 20 years’ time, they would be covered in folds of extra flesh or whether they’d support the long brown stalks models flaunted as they clopped across runways.
But these seem the appropriate worries of a fairly unfettered youth. We wonder if we will ever be fully sorted out and how our sorted-out selves will function. I’d like to believe that sense of mystery can be universally understood, even if not experienced. Sometimes, I imagine that before the schoolgirls in Chibok were taken, when their bodies were still their own, they too stood alone in mirrors silently taking stock, pinching, head-tilting, appraising their smiles, making secret negotiations with their reflections over how they would and would not let themselves look and behave when they were grown.
They wouldn’t wear bad hair — whether purchased or scalp grown — wouldn’t get too skinny; wouldn’t let any baby weight keep clinging long after the babies had stopped, wouldn’t leave home without plummy lipstick and kohl ringing their eyes, would never go anywhere without a touch of gold at the wrist or neck.
Not if I can help it, they’d whisper aloud.
Or maybe there were no wouldn’ts at all. Maybe there was only the most important would: they would be happy with themselves, however they would be.
The future, afar off, should leave room for such negotiations. It should be built of lofty looks and high thoughts and a long stretch of years to plan how to reach them.
School was only one step. But for them, it was such a monumental one.
By the time I reached high school, I had stopped obsessing so over knees. I’d tried to stop centering looks at all. A mediocre student, I was too worried over whether I would be able to go to College. College was always invoked in hushes at home, the capital C all but visible whenever the word was uttered, and it stood to everyone’s reason that if I went and I excelled, the superficial would begin to take care itself. I’d be earning enough to pay for any adornment I’d need: the professional multi-degreed woman would subsume the gangly adolescent inside.
I do not know how misguided it is for me to think of myself at their age as I think of the Chibok girls. But it is the way I contextualize the enormity of their loss. I weigh it against what I worried over, what I hoped for, and I see that those markers of adolescent identity — which seem so frivolous, when we’re old enough to see what we have become — are the things that hold us together, the traits that give an account of who we are.
It is not the names of the girls I’ve wanted to know during their 26 days of captivity. I have wanted to know what they were studying, which of them planned to defy her father’s wish that she become a doctor and to instead pursue dance or a life in letters or a career in aviation. I have wanted to know which ones loved pressing the pads of their fingers into their natural hair so much that they encouraged others to do the same, just to feel the joy of it. Which ones longed to fall in love? Which had been harboring unexpressed crushes? Which worried over the roughness of her knees or the shape of her lips or the sharpness of jaw and elbow?
And which of them cannot, at this point, remember any of this about herself anymore? Which has been indoctrinated, convulsively ill, brutally assaulted? Which wonders if anyone is coming? Which has such tenacious parents she cannot fathom any outcome other than being rescued by them? Does word of their nation’s women in protests, if it has reached them at all, serve to shore them up? Does it reaffirm the import of women’s education? Do they hear in the battle cries the sounds of the grown selves they can still become?
I have no end of questions.
Yesterday, Mother’s Day, I cuddled with my daughter and took a ton of pictures. We photograph ourselves and each other, endless snapshots for which she has grown poised and expectant. She has been watching me as I’ve slowly reclaimed the parts of myself that felt so misplaced after motherhood: the body confidence, the brain whose thoughts seemed permanently covered in postpartum haze. She loves to look at these pictures later. She is studying something of herself in them. She is looking back and forth between herself and me.
Right now, I am how she understands womanhood. But there will come a time when she defines it for herself. No mother wants those definitions marked with unmerciful violence, with traumas for which even she has no frame of reference. No mother wants her daughter robbed of healthy adolescence, of the luxury of long, unhampered years to see what the end will be.
I want those girls found and recovered, but I have no delusions about what long-term captivity and torture does to the psyche. I know what it is capable of erasing. More than rescue, I want them to retain their memories of themselves in the life before. I want them to look at themselves 20 years hence and marvel at how much the woman before them embodies what they’d imagined for themselves all these years ago, in dormitory mirrors. In my imagination they will glimpse their degrees on the walls behind them and allow themselves private, daily shudders at what they were forced to endure to earn them. And they will face the world without fear of dark fates, for they know they possess what is needed to stare the darkest down.