Every third Friday of the month, he will buy a lottery ticket from the neon-drenched corner bodega and will wire the better half of his pay to his parents. He will send letters detailing the weather, the strange new food, and sign them “your bushfaller.” He will leave out the jobs he has taken cleaning the toilets of a Chinese buffet and washing dishes at the university cafeteria. He will toss some change to Duke, the homeless bard holding court under the thundering overpass, and ask him for a lucky number.
On her days off, she will draft lengthy rending letters to her sister, tapping a lornful tattoo on a sea-blue typewriter her father had gifted her when she first left home. But she will never send them and only the ink ribbon will commit the words to memory. She will send money like a tithe to her family in a slim white envelope with no note, no greeting, no explanation.
Their eyes will lock over cadavers and across lecture halls full of faces so unlike their own. They will be the only ones. He will want nothing more than to press his lips into the lopsided dimple on her right cheek, just there where the gods had erred in their fine stitching. She will want nothing more than to find safety in the wide expanse between his shoulder blades. She imagines she might find, hiding beneath the impeccably starched shirt pleats, a latticework of plumy vanes and coverts. Through the long winter, they will balm themselves with tales of soft wind whistling through the cane and water bursting free from young coconuts, of the flutter of ibis wings, of distant shores that keep their secrets, and the whir of faces just like theirs.
They will play records late into the night and sip SoCo slow over the shuffle, bump, and screech of the street below. She will play Marvin Gaye, reggae, and calypso, smoking long cigarillos on the fire escape with her hair setting in lime green plastic curlers. She will tease him for playing his Loretta Lynn record and he will wink, singing as he drops the needle over the silken vinyl surface, I remember well, the well where I drew water.
One summer, they will have a daughter and name her for the ancients, the namesake of ancestors pounding cassava and harvesting cacao. The next year, they will have a son and name him for the new world. The children will grow anemic on the father’s dreams, the mother will nurse the children with phantoms and they will learn to float instead of walk—their feet reaching for air instead of deep into the earth. The father will insist on the Queen’s English and diction. They will be native speakers of a borrowed tongue.
The mother’s stethoscope will start to feel like a noose. The father will begin moonlighting at an upstate urgent care center, driving the three hours in his gray ’84 Camry with the jagged tear in the floor that entreats the January air to shackle his ankles. He will drive carefully. His license, his passport, a copy of his diploma, and his hospital badge displayed on the dashboard. Those nights she will stay with the children in the dank apartment with the cat-piss carpeting and hate him for it. She will fail her boards that year, trying to mother children who look at her like a stranger. He will lose his way on drives back into the city. He will find ways to shake the necrotizing cold creeping up his ankles with women who smell like palm oil, camphor, and home.
They will call her nurse and housekeeping. They will refuse to let her draw their blood. They will call her too pretty for her occupation, too intelligent for her station. She will struggle to remember herself. Desperate, she will search for the divine in megachurch stadium seats and on overstocked botanica shelves with armchair hoodoo. She will start to bleed from her belly button and see women she long thought dead following her through the OR in broad daylight. She will look her daughter straight in the eyes and see no resemblance. She will begin to teach her daughter the nice words and the soft ways so that, perhaps later, her skin will not limit her. She will teach her how to be neat and clean and how to sit like a proper young lady with her legs and her mouth shut.
He will learn to cradle his hands like the other men in white coats, like an undertaker, like an overseer. They will call him articulate and brilliant, arching wry dyspeptic brows, never veiling their surprise. He will buy too-long golf clubs at the thrift store and pin-striped tailored suits from an Armenian side-hustle behind the delicatessen. One night, a young boy with his petit frère’s face will die on his table, of multiple gunshot wounds, and he will stare down into the crimson cavity, into the fleshy ribbons that remain, and he will weep and not know its meaning.
When the streets are still blanketed in blinding white snow, they will move to a brand-new suburb. They will be the only ones. The house will be so large that their footfalls echo, bouncing above like trickster spirits across the vaulted ceilings. The father will love the way he can fill the cavernous emptiness with his own voice, bright with self-satisfaction. He will watch his son asleep in a room larger than his own childhood home. And he will think I’ve made it. The mother will resent the cold marble underfoot and will develop a bone-ache she will never conquer. She will hire help because she must pass her boards this time and she sees dirt everywhere she turns—on the gleaming white countertops, on the gleaming white bannister, on the gleaming white baseboards and crown molding, on the gleaming white stairs. But she will mistrust the squat woman with the dulcet singsong lilt and molasses hands because she looks too much like flesh and blood.
They will send their children to a New England boarding school where they teach Latin and have a crew team. They will be the only ones and the children will not mind it. As the leaves fall, the children will learn to ride English saddle and play lacrosse. In the winter, they will ask for skis. They will befriend Margauxs, Parkers, and Brookes who will invite them for summers in the Hamptons and Nantucket where they will wear sunscreen but have ashy feet and their neglected kinks will knot into matted dreadlocks and the passersby will be too well-bred to stare. When the children return, they will seem foreign to her and smell like someone else’s. She will yell more than she means to and she will drink more than she means to and she will shutter the windows and lock the doors keeping the children inside because if something goes missing at Kelly’s or Jonathan’s or Danielle’s she already knows who will be blamed. She will regret teaching her daughter the nice words and the soft ways and will mock her—hoping to toughen the girl’s skin so it may more closely resemble her own.
He will insist that they need a new car, that the neighbors keep calling the police when they see him drive by their homes in the ’84 Camry. They will buy a Land Cruiser and together they will take the ’84 Camry to the junkyard. She will cry as they drive away, abandoning the last relic of who they once were.
From time to time, their forgetful neighbors will still call the authorities.
Weeks will pass when they do not see each other—she working days, he working nights, switching and taking more shifts so that the children can have snowboards and riding boots, camping gear, laptops, class trips to Barcelona and Paris, and other sundries for activities the parents have never done, nor will ever do.
He will host large parties. She will entertain with a frozen smile and a backless dress and hate him for it. She will send designer bags and unworn dresses to her sister. She will send no note, no greeting, no explanation. Later, when the twilight call comes announcing the inevitable, she will pay for a premium satin lined casket for her mother, for the wake-keeping in a new air-conditioned funeral home, for a three weeks-worth of food, and she will send an elegant violet gown from the department store.
Still wearing scrubs from the night before, she will shout in the kitchen over giant pots of rice and oxtail stew: Out there is America. This house is not America. For winter holidays, they will send the children to his home country because they are becoming much too American. The children will board the plane and will cry each other to sleep for days missing MTV and takeout. They will not know pidgin and their cousins will laugh and pinch their arms calling them white-man pekin. Their aunties will coddle them and treat them like glass and they will ask their brother to send more money, I beg, so they may better care for his fragile children from white-man country. But the aunties will pocket the money for their own affairs. The driver will take pity and whisk the children away for long drives along the coast and let them bathe in the sea and chop crisp roasted fish that will have them gripping the latrine tiles for two days.
They will sip pamplemousse on the sweeping veranda of the big house their father erected on the site of the teeny thatched hut he had been born in when the land was still under the boot of the British. They will sit with their grandparents and their grandmother will tell them stories of village heroes and spirits and deserted slave ports and Ejagham ancestors and of a boy who would grow up to be their father. With the mosquitoes buzzing and the geckos prancing along the stucco walls, their grandfather will have them read pristine copies of Macbeth and Othello out loud into the shadows of leaping spider monkeys in the fecund night.
At the school with the lake and the stately buildings, the daughter will begin to pull her nose straight with clothespins and will buy an at-home relaxer from some forgotten back corner of the school store and the lye will burn her baby hairs clean off. She will skip meals hoping her hips stop their widening, hoping her chest stops taking up so much space. The son will start smoking pot and will start to notice that he is real cool and that girls with flaxen hair and blue-blood eyes think him real cool, too. He will bask in the popularity of his borrowed authenticity and he will pepper his phrases with all the slang he can parrot out from watching 106 & Park on the common room cable with Margaux, and Palmer, and Brooke.
The family will take one vacation together. They will travel through Europe and the daughter will dream of painting frescos and living in the moors and writing novels in an Oxfordshire cottage with a long-haired artist named Darcy. The son will dream of being a doctor because somewhere along the way he will lose his grasp on imagination. Their mother will seem like a new person. In Santorini, she will look over the blue and white speckled valley and feel she might learn to breathe again. Their father will take photos of every flying buttress and street-side café and he will buy more than they need. In Madrid, their mother will surprise the locals with her fluent command of the language and in Seville, they will call her morena.
The children will apply to Ivy League colleges they have never visited because their father could care less about fit and what was it all for if not for this? The daughter will attend a “little Ivy” tucked away in some forest where bi-curious trust fund babies wear Birkenstocks and Che t-shirts until it is time to graduate and assume their rightful place in the world. She will fall in love with a woman with a Swahili name and a bald head she crowns with towering headwraps like a queen. She will start quoting bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and James Baldwin like Holy Scripture. She will cut off all her hair in sacrifice. On visits home, she will diagnose her mother with “acute internalized oppression” and will leave books on black feminist thought on her mother’s night table as prescription. One Christmas holiday, she will blame her parents for their “respectability politics” and she will call her father an Uncle Tom, certain that she sees what they cannot. She will join a group of people that look like her and think like her. She will start wearing the waxprint fabrics she so hated as a child and she will beam when they call her sister.
For a long while, the daughter will think they are all the same—that she is the same. But they will start to call her bougie and sheltered and their necks will swivel warning her to check her privilege ’cause the system doesn’t treat all black folk the same. She will try to study her way to authenticity. She will try to write her way to absolution. In search of redemption, she will join marches and rallies and volunteer to organize inner-city youth who look like her but share nothing more. The woman with the Swahili name will call her a fake and leave her shattered in damp post-coital sheets laced with clarysage and cocoa butter.
The son will go to a proper Ivy and he’ll join an elite brotherhood where he will be the only one. He will ignore the calls and notices in his campus mailbox from the cultural center and the black student union. He will avert his eyes and fail to return nods of comradery while crossing the quad. He will date a woman with a beautiful mouth and inky waves framing olive skin. They will play beer pong and snort coke on antique tables and he will pop his collar and call white boys brother. One night between thrusts the woman will call him nigger with her beautiful mouth—like a pet-name, no different than babe or love or sweetheart. The next morning, alone, he will begin to remember things he had long forgotten, etched across this skin. He will find old scars there from wounds he never knew he had sustained.
The daughter will go on to graduate school and she will find that she can no longer dream of the moors and of the strange charm of European streets and ivory towers without knowing what sins made them possible. She will work for a nonprofit where her betters will find her aggressive. She will call her father late one night and ask why he raised her entitled and not knowing any better, like a white man. One summer, the country will light up like a flare because people that look like her are being shot in cold blood in the streets. She will call her father to tell him to be careful when driving back to the hospital at night. The father will say Don’t worry. This has nothing to do with us. We are safe. But for a moment he will think of the ’84 Camry and how his innards twisted as he gripped the steering wheel through deserted country roads, eyes scanning the rearview for flashes of red and blue.
The son will go to medical school as was destined and he will feel no great sense of achievement. He will wish away the well-meaning glances that say how far you must have come to get here, how proud your people must be, what an accomplishment it is to be the only one. He will lock eyes across lecture halls and exam tables with Surita, and she will bring him home to meet her parents and Dada ji. Surita’s parents will stare at him askance, though they are no different and they will forbid their match. His white brothers will attempt to cheer him up saying it was for the best, plus she always smelled like curry anyway. Their jeers will haunt his dreams, where he will see them grinning beneath murderous poplars.
In his loft apartment with exposed brick, he will crush Demerol tablets into a fine powder between gritted teeth.
After the stomach pumping and the intubation, the father will find himself holding vigil outside the son’s hospital room bewildered, wondering his role in all this. He will wonder how the boy could want for more when they had sacrificed so much to keep him afloat, above, apart. The father had followed all the rules of the American game park, bought his children all the white money could buy. The son will survive the incident, but in the morning the father will mourn the loss of something far greater.
A year later, the mother will think of leaving the father. But she will make it no further than the small room on the first floor where the help once slept. He will notice the bareness of their bedroom, the absence of her things like a great aporia. He will not call her back or ever step foot in the small room beneath his wing-tipped feet. He will never tell her that he wished she could see herself the way he saw her that first day so many years ago, across the lecture hall. And she will not forgive him for forgetting that, once, they had been the only ones.