When my father killed himself during my first year at college, I had already begun to date men for money. The men were all much older, the youngest 35 and the oldest almost 50. I sought only men who were wealthy and white, men as different from my father as could be. Men who would give to me freely. Sugar daddies.
I was 18 when it started. I wasn’t poor, exactly. Only broke. My relationship with my momma was tense and withering–she told me that if I left Georgia to go to college in New York, she would not support me. So I got scholarships and loans to pay the steep costs of NYU. I had a work-study position at the recreation center where I sat behind a kiosk, writing down the names of sweaty women waiting to use an elliptical. It paid 10 dollars an hour. I had a meal plan. I was doing fine.
But I have always loved money. As a girl I preferred to watch my allowance pile up in a dresser drawer rather than spend it. I stole instead. At the grocery store, I would tiptoe away from my momma and head for the candy aisle. If money was my first love, sugar was a close second. With my allowance snug in one coat pocket, I would fill the other with Snickers and Starbursts.
I was never caught. This was when I first realized that the rules of money were not fixed, that I could make money simply by not spending my own. Then as a woman I found men who were willing to give me money to spend, while my own little work-study paycheck remained snug in a checking account.
My father was a handsome man. The youngest of three brothers in a Nigerian village, he came to America in the 1970s on an engineering scholarship. Over the next 15 years he would have five American children with four American women, one of them white. He lured them with dusky tales of village life and the Igbo chants he sang as he cooked them meals of fufu and egusi.
All of our mothers were made to beg and borrow when our father refused to pay any kind of support. He started the slow, painful process of killing himself when the county sheriff came knocking with an arrest warrant in February of 2009. Unluckily for my daddy, they take child support evasion seriously in Georgia. And I suppose he knew this. Because before answering the door, he drank half a bottle of Liquid-Plumr.
The police later told my momma that he went into convulsions in the backseat of the sheriff’s car. At the hospital, my father vomited blood and drifted in and out of consciousness. During one lucid moment, they had him sign some papers. He signed my momma’s name. He wrote my momma’s name all over the forms, not just on the signature line. Then he lapsed into a coma, and never awoke.
Greg was my first, 35 years old. He had a Brooklyn townhouse, owned a small construction company and two restaurants. We looked good together, Greg and I. He was balding just a bit at the temples but had a baby face and an optimistic nature so that the difference in our ages was hardly noticeable. I’d been introduced to the existence of sugar daddies by another girl who worked at the rec center with me. She was extraordinarily tall and glamorous, and had the shiniest hair I’d ever seen on another black girl. She was the one to see Greg’s Craigslist ad and point me to it. He seems sweet, she said. Sweet is good, ’cause some of these guys are really assholes.
The relationship started out simple. Greg took me to nice restaurants where he’d watch me indulgently as I ordered two, sometimes three sugary desserts. We went for walks around Brooklyn afterward, giving our leftovers to dozing homeless men. We made a mistake once, with a guy who turned out to be an undercover cop dressed in a dirty sweater and fingerless gloves. He jumped up and yelled at us, flashed his badge. We ran away giggling and holding hands, like a couple of schoolchildren.
I usually spent the night at his place. He would drive me back to the Village in the early morning so that I wouldn’t be late to class, slipping me a few hundred dollars that rested warmly in my coat pocket.
But eventually, after a month of seeing each other, Greg wanted to talk to me about karma, and his philanthropic pursuits. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was his personal manifestation of both.
What’s a girl like you doing something like this for?
What do you mean?
Well, you know.
No, I don’t.
It’s just that, you seem smart, you go to NYU. You seem so much better than this.
I never asked, Better than what?
The way he spoke to me, like he was my caseworker or something. I began to hate him. During sex I shrank away from his touch. I did it consciously, but was good at making it look instinctive. He seemed to want me to feel bad, shamefaced, to bawl and justify myself with stories of an abusive childhood. Instead, I let him think that his touch disgusted me.
He stopped calling.
From our father, my siblings and I inherited the high cheekbones, long ovular faces, his strangely Asiatic eyes. Four daughters and a son. He married only my momma and the mother of the boy, leaving my eldest two half sisters in a bitter state of illegitimacy. He avoided paying child support by moving continuously between Georgia counties, and my half siblings’ mothers didn’t have the financial means or the energy to hunt him down. There was a time when both my half sisters would call on my momma instead of their own if they wanted updates on the man who’d made them.
Up until I was 14, my sister and I visited him once every few months for the weekend. He lived in downtown Atlanta then, in a two-story house with a scraggly front yard. I remember thinking my daddy was rich because the house was so white on the outside, and his kitchen had a dishwasher and the floors were always clean. But it was only because the house barely looked lived in. In his fridge there was only 7UP and Tupperware bowls filled with fufu, a West African dish made of dough and a fish or meat stew.
Our daddy rarely tried to speak to us, but would drop us off at the mall for almost the entire day. Once, I asked him for money. My sister’s elbow dug into my back, but my 13-year-old sensibility had latched onto the injustice of being left at a mall for hours with no spending money. And I recognized that stealing from a mall was harder than stealing from a grocery store. I wasn’t willing to take the risk.
The request had barely left my mouth before he started screaming at me. I couldn’t understand what he was saying; there were too many Igbo words mixed up in the shouting. The part that I caught was that we were just like our mother, always with our hands out for something he didn’t have. He sped off in his car and came back for us hours later.
James was a stockbroker and a Jew and an anarchist. A loud, funny guy in his 40s. What he wanted from me was a sparring partner, a girl to flame his verbal fires with clever but naive comebacks, so that he could correct me in all his sage wisdom.
I liked him better than Greg. James was crass and thoughtless in a way that made our relationship much easier. I took the train out to New Jersey where he lived in the same town where he’d gone to high school. We drove around in his sports car, and I laughed when he honked at anyone in front of us who stood at a stop sign for a second too long. He took me to dive bars that had live improvised jazz. James had a thing for feeding me. Not food, but drinks. He liked to hold glasses of wine and beer to my lips as I drank, and he smiled when I scrunched up my face and complained of the dry, bitter alcohol not being sweet enough for me.
I stopped seeing him when he stopped paying me. One day, after he’d driven me down to Hoboken so that I could take the PATH back into the city, he asked if he could pay me the next time. I knew what this meant: I wasn’t living up to his expectations of the coed call girls he’d seen in movies. It was embarrassing. Some feminine common sense in me told me not to press him, and I got out of the car without a lot of extra words.
My father was not a poor man. He worked as an engineer for a large communication company and sold real estate on the side. To this day I don’t understand why he refused to pay the child support he owed his exes.
A few days before Valentine’s Day of the year I would be 19, my momma called to tell me that my father had gone and killed himself, and would I be able to get a flight out of New York soon. What shocked me more than the news about my father’s death was that my momma offered to pay for the ticket.
Michael was the last man I dated for money. I met him a month before my father died. He was the oldest, at 50, the same age as both my parents, though I didn’t mind because he paid more than Greg and James combined. He had a short, broad body with hair all over his chest, back, and legs. He made his money buying debt from credit card companies for pennies on the dollar, and then subtly threatening the debtor until he was paid in full. He was Italian.
Michael had been married twice before, first to a Puerto Rican and then to a black woman, and had two kids. I would cringe inwardly whenever he mentioned his son or daughter–it made me think too much about being a child myself. His daughter was only five years younger than me.
Because he was such a family man, our relationship was domestic from the beginning. Michael lived two hours upstate. He invited me to his house for the weekends while the kids were at their mother’s. His cupboards were filled with candy that I devoured–Fruit Roll-Ups, Fruit by the Foot, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And Michael was the only one to ask about my family. I told him about my father and his multiple children; afterward he said to me, consolingly, Well, it was probably being from Africa. He’s used to all those wives.
One evening, after dinner during my third and last visit to his home, Michael wanted to take a walk so that I could see the expanse of his property. I had forgotten to bring shoes more comfortable than the heeled boots I was wearing, so he suggested that I wear his daughter’s shoes. They were pink and silver Reeboks, my size. Michael did not seem to find it odd that the woman he was sleeping with was wearing his little girl’s sneakers.
I wore her shoes, but I never went back to that house again. At the time I told myself that it was Michael, the way he acted as if we were close to married, letting me answer his home phone when it rang. This strange intimacy wasn’t part of the contract, and it unnerved me. But even more, it was his daughter. I could not shake the image of her coming home, the kitchen emptied of her favorite candy. Sliding her feet into her sneakers, finding them warm.
When I arrived in Atlanta for my father’s funeral, everybody was in the midst of laying his death at our feet. By “everybody” I mean my half siblings and their mothers. And by “our” feet, I mean my momma’s. They pointed to the papers that the hospital had given them, soaked in my father’s blue vomit, my momma’s name written all over.
We fought every day leading up to the funeral. They said that my momma was selfish for pursuing child support charges against our daddy for so long. As if we should have just accepted his unreliability, the way that they had. I fiercely defended my momma, the tensions between her and me dissipating for the time. I told my ex-stepmother that I would not attend the funeral if my momma wasn’t allowed in. They relented; they were spiteful but not heartless.
It hadn’t been long before his death that all of us siblings had, together, lamented his stinginess, his selfishness. But now that he was gone, some false sense of respect had descended on everyone. My eldest half sister eulogized him–He tried to be a good man, she said, rather weakly I thought.
I looked down the length of the pew at everyone who shared my blood and noticed I wasn’t the only one who did not cry. Weeks later a fight would ensue over his life insurance–he had cut me and my sister out. But for now we sat in the church, ignoring whatever misery the dead had sown.
People don’t believe me when I say I did it for the money, that I approached it like a part-time job to which I clocked in and out every weekend. Simply liking money–and the crass pleasure of buying things with it–is considered strange. Stranger than giving up your time and your body and your smiles for a few hundred dollars an evening.
I’ve always resisted the idea that these men were an attempt at receiving some semblance of worth from my father, monetary or otherwise. Yet there it is, of course. But I never saw them as father figures. They were only sugar daddies. And I was only their artificial sweetener, their sugar pill, their placebo effect. My sugar daddies were like my father in only one way: They sometimes paid, and sometimes didn’t.
Chidelia Edochie, winner of the 2012 M Literary Residency in Shanghai, writes both fiction and nonfiction, and can be followed on Twitter. Excerpted from Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts (Winter/Spring 2012), published at the University of Houston.