Nkem stares at the Benin mask on her mantel as she listens to her friend tell her that her husband, Obiora, has a girlfriend who lives in Nkem and Obiora's house in Nigeria. When she hangs up the phone, Nkem pours herself a glass of water and continues to study the Benin mask. She imagines it being carved and remembers Obiora's story of how the mask was used. Obiora always said that the custodians of the mask were also tasked with bringing fresh human heads to bury with the king, and Nkem imagines that the custodians didn't want to behead strangers.
As Nkem gets proof that her marriage is little more than an act and a lie, she surrounds herself with physical and mental acts as well (the Benin mask is a replica, not an original, and the possibility that the custodians of the originals were unhappy with their jobs comes only from Nkem's imagination). In particular, her imaginings about the mask custodians shows how Nkem uses lies to make herself feel better about unpleasant truths.
The story jumps backwards in time to when Nkem first came to America, pregnant with her first child. The house was fresh and her neighbors were helpful. Obiora called the neighbors "plastic," but both of them wanted their children to be like the American children, who refused to eat food that had fallen on the ground.
The American dream is defined here by the desire for children to know plenty and to feel comfortable wasting food. Obiora in particular seems to despise the neighbors and their lifestyle, while simultaneously hoping to emulate them.
Obiora stayed with Nkem for a few months. After that, Nkem explained to her curious neighbors that Obiora lived in America and Nigeria. Obiora only laughed at the neighbors' curiosity, and Nkem didn't say anything even though she knew of Nigerian couples who lived together year-round.
Nkem realizes early on that there's something amiss with her marriage. However, she defers to her husband's humorous take on things rather than voice her opinions. She attempts to create a narrative, both for herself and the neighbors, that normalizes her husband's abnormal behavior.
Back in the present, Nkem touches the Benin mask and remembers what Obiora has said about it: the masks were called "war booty" by the British, who seized the masks in the 19th century. Nkem thinks about how Obiora makes the masks come to life when he tells her about their history, and Nkem listens quietly because Obiora speaks so passionately, even though she wonders if his facts are truly correct.
Nkem doesn't voice her thoughts or opinions in her marriage, which suggests that she's little more than a figurehead or a trophy wife for Obiora. Her marriage, essentially, is happening to her; she's not necessarily an active participant in it. She has little power if she doesn't have a voice.
Nkem wonders what Obiora will bring when he returns to her next week. She checks the time and sees that she has an hour before she has to pick up her children. She surveys her living room and thinks about a deliveryman who came the other day and complimented her on her home. Nkem thinks that she loves that in America, people unreasonably believe that they can better themselves.
At this point, Nkem identifies this unreasonable hope as being part of the American dream, but she doesn't necessarily see it as being a part of her American dream, despite having achieved a great degree of wealth and status.
When Nkem first came to America, she was excited to join the club of wives whose rich Nigerian husbands sent them to have babies in America. Obiora soon bought their house in America, and she liked being a part of the league of wives whose husbands owned property in America. Nkem stayed home with the babies and took computer courses in between her first and second child, because "Obiora said it was a good idea." Obiora enrolled the children in school, and Nkem said nothing because she never thought her children would go to school with rich white children.
Once again, Nkem never mentions her own opinions regarding what her life in America looks like. She did what Obiora wanted her to do, and the narration never suggests that Nkem even had opinions of her own. It’s instead suggested that what she actually achieved was so far beyond what she had considered possible that whatever she ended up with was “good enough.”
For the first two years, Obiora visited monthly and Nkem and the children went to Nigeria for Christmas. When Obiora got government contracts for work, he started visiting only in the summer. Nkem runs her hand through her hair and thinks about how she wants to have it touched up and styled like Obiora likes before he arrives, and thinks about waxing her pubic hair like he prefers as well. She walks through the house and thinks about walking through the house in Lagos. She remembers getting a suspicious call on Christmas Eve and telling herself that it was certainly a wrong number.
Nkem continues to give the sense that she arranges her life around Obiora's, first by moving to America and doing what he thought was best, and now by tailoring her personal grooming habits to meet his standards. She's also dwelling on the stories she's been telling herself about Obiora's infidelity. She's beginning to acknowledge that the infidelity has likely been happening for a long time, and she's ignored it.
Nkem walks upstairs to the bathroom and studies herself in the mirror. She thinks about how Obiora calls her eyes "mermaid eyes." Nkem starts cutting her hair and as she does, she remembers meeting a Nigerian woman at a wedding in Delaware. The woman spoke about their husbands' habit of leaving them in America with the children, cars, and big houses, and only visiting occasionally. The woman had said that their husbands won't move to America because America doesn't recognize or respect "Big Men." Nkem had asked the woman if she was going to move back to Nigeria, and the woman said that she's not the same anymore, and her children wouldn't blend in.
The woman at the wedding suggests that the American dream isn't attainable for everyone, not least for the women’s husbands, who are important men in Nigeria but cannot maintain that status in America. Yet by living for so many years in America, the woman indicates that she's changed too much to comfortably exist in Nigerian society again. She's caught between two cultures, and it appears that she's decided that living alone in America is better than trying to move back to Nigeria.
Nkem calls her housegirl Amaechi to clean up the hair. Amaechi is distraught that Nkem cut her hair, and Nkem snaps at her. Nkem thinks that the "madam/housegirl" line is becoming blurred, and that America forces you to be egalitarian and become friends with your housegirl. Nkem apologizes to Amaechi.
Another effect of living in America is that (in this case) traditional household hierarchy dissolves. This provides even more evidence for why Obiora won't move permanently to America, as Amaechi and Nkem's friendship would possibly undermine Obiora's sense of authority and importance.
Later that night, Obiora calls. He asks Nkem about the children and then has to hang up to take a call from the minister's personal assistant. Nkem tries to think of her husband and wonders if he's alone or with his girlfriend. She wonders what this girl is like and thinks about her own experiences dating married men. They'd helped her family with medical bills, but none of them had proposed because she'd only completed secretarial school and was still a "bush girl."
Despite Nkem's shock and displeasure about Obiora's infidelity, her own experience indicates that it was likely something to be expected. The gifts from these former suitors suggest that for these men, having a girlfriend is a way to demonstrate their wealth, as they can afford to "keep" multiple women.
Obiora, though, took Nkem to dinner and told her she'd learn to love the wine. She made herself like it. Obiora enrolled Nkem's siblings in school, introduced her to his friends, and moved her into a flat in Ikeja. She thinks that when he asked her to marry him, she would've been perfectly happy if he'd just told her to marry him. Nkem feels possessive of her husband and goes to Walgreens to buy texturizer for her hair.
Finally the reader gets to see how Nkem lost her voice in her marriage. Obiora treated her differently than these other men, and pleasing him became a way to escape from her "bush girl" past. Marrying him has obviously allowed her a life she'd previously thought impossible, and agreeing to his wishes will presumably keep her safe and physically comfortable—but not happy.
Nkem sits in the kitchen and watches Amaechi slice potatoes. Amaechi laughs that her mother used to rub yam peel on her skin as punishment, and Nkem thinks that it's hard to find real yams at the African grocery in America. She thinks about how similar her own childhood was to Amaechi's, and how poor her family was. Amaechi asks Nkem her preference on an ingredient for dinner, and Nkem tells her to use what she'd like to, thinking that Amaechi is better in the kitchen than she is anyway.
American ideas of egalitarianism are coloring Nkem's thought process here; she suggests that dictating Amaechi's cooking is little more than a power play and decides that it's not worth it. Here too, the traditional Nigerian food allows Nkem to connect to Amaechi, their similar childhoods, and the nostalgia of home. However, the sense of true equality is limited, as Nkem keeps her similarities to Amaechi private.
Nkem thinks about Amaechi's arrival in America. She tells Amaechi that Obiora has a girlfriend in Lagos. Amaechi is shocked and asks how Nkem knows. Nkem explains the phone call from her friend and thinks that she knows her friend is right. Nkem thinks that it's strange to think of the Lagos house as home, as this house in Philadelphia is truly her home now.
Confiding in Amaechi does several things. First, it reinforces the growing sense of equality and friendship between Nkem and Amaechi; second, the fact that Nkem put Obiora's infidelity into words for the first time makes it real. This is the first time Nkem has ever actually expressed her discontent aloud.
Amaechi says that Nkem will discuss the matter with Obiora, and he'll ask his girlfriend to move out. She continues, saying that Nkem will forgive him, because "men are like that." Nkem asks if Amaechi thinks Obiora has always had girlfriends, but Amaechi refuses to say. At Nkem's prodding, Amaechi tells Nkem that Nkem certainly knows deep inside that Obiora has always had girlfriends, but it's better to ignore it because Obiora is a good man. Nkem wants to agree, but only tells Amaechi to check the potatoes.
Despite their similarly poor beginnings and tenuous friendship, Amaechi's reaction shows that now, there's a world of difference between these two women. Amaechi confirms that extramarital relationships are to be expected, but maintains that Nkem is still lucky to be married; the fact that her spouse is cheating is inconsequential.
After Nkem puts the children to bed, she dials the house in Lagos. A new houseboy answers the phone and insists that only the steward and cook are at home. Nkem hangs up, and Amaechi asks Nkem if she'd like a "small drink." Nkem explains to the reader that their tradition of a "small drink" began years ago to celebrate the arrival of Nkem's green card. Nkem thinks that she misses Nigeria, but her life is in America. She instructs Amaechi to grab wine and glasses.
The origins of the "small drink" tradition reinforce the idea that America means equality—this bonding ritual began only once Nkem became a legal resident of the country, and continues when Nkem finds solace in Amaechi’s company after failing to reach her husband. It's implied that this tradition would never happen in Nigeria, and probably more importantly, isn't something that Nkem and Amaechi would be able to continue if they were to relocate to Nigeria.
As Nkem and the children drive to the airport, she thinks that she hasn't waxed her pubic hair. The children are quiet. At the airport, the children hug Obiora. Obiora comments that Nkem has cut her hair.
Nkem's haircut is a way for her to assert her autonomy in her relationship with Obiora. His comment suggests that this change wasn't something he expected.
That night, Nkem studies the first original piece of art Obiora has ever brought. He's excited about it, and Nkem asks Obiora if the people who had to kill to get human heads to bury the king were happy doing what they did. Obiora is confused and asks why she cut her hair. He asks if it's the newest trend in America, and begins to undress for a shower. Nkem notices how round his belly is getting and tries to remember if the married men she dated had bellies like that. She can't remember where her life went.
Notice that Obiora suggests that the only reason that Nkem would cut her hair is to follow a trend (which is something that someone else has deemed fashionable)—he doesn't consider that she has her own independent desires. Nkem continues to become more and more disillusioned with her husband and her marriage as she studies Obiora's body. Noticing that it's not perfect indicates that she's finally becoming aware of the realities of her marriage.
Obiora says that long hair is better on a Big Man's wife. Nkem watches him stretch and thinks about how she used to shower with him and perform oral sex in the shower. She asks if they can fit their marriage into two months in the summer and three weeks at Christmas. Obiora asks Nkem to shower with him. She tries to ignore him, but finally joins him.
Obiora confirms that he views Nkem as little more than an accessory to make him look powerful; she has to look a certain way or he won't look like a “Big Man.” His image and success hinge, essentially, on Nkem's willingness to suppress her own desires and go along with his.
In the shower, Nkem says that they need to find a school for the children in Lagos. Obiora stares at her as she says that they're moving back. She wonders if Obiora liked her because she never speaks up like this. Obiora asks why, and Nkem answers that she wants to know when Obiora hires a new houseboy in her home. Obiora says they'll talk about it.
It's unclear where Nkem's newfound voice is going to get her, but finding her voice is a victory in and of itself. In doing so, Nkem begins to take control of her life and her marriage, as well as a home that she barely thinks of as home in Lagos.