Authors: Dinaw Mengestu
His exact relationship to my mother remains a mystery. He is not her brother, but throughout my life, I have known him only as my uncle. He came to D.C. two years before me after having disappeared in the middle of the night without telling a single person. His house and all of his possessions, down to his car keys and family photographs, were left perfectly intact, as if he had disappeared into thin air just as his home had always suggested he would. Two weeks later troops showed up at his door, disgusted to find that the entire estate had become occupied by the relatives of his maid, guard, and cook. The servants who lived on his estate never knew where he was going, and for this they were beaten (but never killed) by the roaming gangs that spent their evenings knocking on the doors of the rich. No one tended to the house, and each man and woman lived briefly in a state of garish splendor, consuming food and clothes with the full knowledge that none of it would last.
The red-line train bound for the suburbs of Maryland is delayed. The trains of this city continue to amaze me, regardless of how long I live here. It’s not just their size, but their order, the sense you get when riding them that a higher, regulatory power is in firm control, even if you yourself are not. All around me people check their watches, shake their heads, and stamp their feet. The platform begins to fill up as people instinctively begin to cluster around the gleaming fluorescent-lit billboards. Behind me is an ad for the Virginia community college I briefly attended. The school’s ad campaign and motto, “Taking You to Where You Want to Be,” is splayed across the bottom in gold-faced letters tilting as if caught in a breeze. Four students—one white, one black, one Asian, one Hispanic—are walking across the lawn, books in arm, smiling at one another. After seventeen years here, I am certain of at least one thing: the liberal idea of America is at its best in advertising. Sixteen years ago, I saw those same smiling faces strolling across the neatly trimmed lawn on a roadside billboard, a pastoral scene that at the time was so appealing to me I was willing to buy it with no questions asked. In the absence of a family, a home, friends, and a country, being a student was as complete an identity as I had ever hoped for. There was a power to the word, something akin to being the citizen of a wealthy, foreign country. To the friends and acquaintances of my uncle, all refugees like him, I was already a moderate success, someone to be teased and bragged about over dinner conversations. To my mother in Ethiopia, I was the penultimate accomplishment of a long-awaited dream. The first aim of the refugee is to survive, and having done that, that initial goal is quickly replaced by the general ambitions of life. I didn’t leave Ethiopia to attend classes in the northern suburbs of Virginia, but to hear the story told then, that was what I had done. During my one year in college, I brandished my title as frequently as possible. I introduced myself as a student to every person I met, often without their asking. I made it the raison d’être for my being in America, even as the famine in Ethiopia briefly dominated the news, along with hints at the long-standing civil war in the north. Images of starving children with bloated bellies and fly-covered faces were ubiquitous. When pressed for a response, all I could do was shake my head and agree that yes, what was happening in Ethiopia was indeed a tragedy. But what did I know about any of this? I was a student, studying engineering. All I wanted was to tuck my books under my arm and stroll across the campus lawn with that permanent grin stretched across my face.
By the time the train pulls into the station, the platform is thick with people pressed tightly together. We all squeeze our way into the train, avoiding eye contact even though we can feel the breath of the person next to us blowing on our neck. Standing next to me is an exceptionally tan young blond woman with a ponytail sticking out of her baseball cap. She’s wearing a blue Georgetown tank top, gray Georgetown shorts, and a black backpack with the Georgetown insignia stitched into the center. I always note the fresh, scrubbed faces of the city’s collegiate crowd with a smatter of envy and wonder. Joseph, in particular, has taught me to appreciate them. He still makes frequent trips to the Georgetown campus, using his long-expired student ID to get him into the library, where he will pull a half-dozen books off the shelves and pile them haphazardly around a table. He likes to play the role of an aspiring academic lost in his deep thoughts about poetry, religion, and politics. The handful of adult continuing-education classes he took there scarred him forever. He used all of his savings to pay for noncredit courses in American Religious Pluralism, Symbolism in Dante’s
, and Gender Relations in Twentieth-Century Post-Colonial Africa. Almost five years have passed since then, a mere technicality for Joseph, who continues even now to reread his class notes and highlight passages from the
Through a round aperture I saw appear,
Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.
When he’s drunk, he likes to declare those to be the most perfect lines of poetry ever written. “Think about it,” he says. “Dante is finally coming out of hell, and that is what he sees. ‘Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears.’ It’s perfect, I tell you. Simply perfect. I told my teacher that no one can understand that line like an African because that is what we lived through. Hell every day with only glimpses of heaven in between.”
There was hardly a single thing in Joseph’s life, though, that hadn’t become a metaphor for Africa. From great lines of poetry to the angle of falling light on a spring afternoon, he saw flashes of the continent wherever he went. Kenneth hated him for this.
“If you miss it so much,” he yelled at him once, “why don’t you go back? Then you don’t have to say every day, ‘This is like Africa, that is like Africa.’ You can’t go back, though. You would rather miss it comfortably from here instead of hating it every day from there.”
Joseph had no response. For once, his symbolic grandiloquence was too big even for him. The words “That is what it’s like to be an African” always hovered around the edge of every conversation Joseph had. At times, it was almost miraculous the way he would manage to find a way to insert them. There wasn’t a sport played in the world that couldn’t be better grasped by the African mind. And as for politics, who understood its weight, capriciousness, and value better than the citizens of a continent devastated by coups and tyrannical old men? A history teacher at my northern Virginia community college said once that there had been only three real revolutions in the past two hundred years: the French, Chinese, and Russian. Everything else was merely a rebellion, insurrection, uprising, protest, strike. Tsk. He didn’t know how easily an entire society could be made and remade. More than just having garish billboards painted on the sides of buildings and multiple-story statues in city squares, Africa’s dictators were busy reshaping their countries to their own liking.
It takes the train less than fifteen minutes to leave the city limits. That’s the dirty secret about D.C. For all of its stature and statues, the city could just as easily have been one of the grander suburbs of America, an appendix hooked to Virginia or Maryland. As the joke goes, everyone who has lived here long enough suffers from an inevitable inferiority complex, size not being the least of it. When the train rushes above ground, we’ve already crossed into the outskirts of the city. The buildings, old brick factories and warehouses, are all marked with the familiar bright red and yellow bubble letters of Disco Dan. The name is everywhere, tagged onto the side of the tracks, buildings, and rusted water towers. A running billboard competing with the ads for Schlitz malt liquor and used-car lots. Disco Dan—offering nothing but himself and his vanity—has them all beat. For as long as I’ve lived in the city, he has been with me. It’s more than just gratitude that rises up involuntarily when I see his name spread across an abandoned brown factory lot, under the broken windows, layered in multiple colors of red, yellow, blue, and white, each character so monstrously large and bright that all you see for a second is the name. I remember another aphorism of my father’s, one that he used to say whenever we passed someone pissing openly in the street: add color to life when you can.
spent the next three days, after she picked it out, reading
The Brothers Karamazov
with Naomi. With school closed for the holidays, she came to the store every day just shortly after waking up. Her mother would bundle her in way too many clothes for the short walk from their house to the store so that the first thing Naomi had to do when she came in was peel off the layers of clothing, which seemed designed to insulate her from the neighborhood as much as from the cold. I kept the stool waiting for her behind the counter so that when she came in she knew without asking where to sit. She piled her coat, gloves, sweater, hat, and scarf into a corner next to the register and then pulled her library copy off the counter where she had left it the day before.
On our first morning together Naomi demanded that I be the one who read first. She laid the book on the counter and said, “Here, you start.”
“Shouldn’t you be the one to start?” I asked her.
“That’s not the way it works,” she said. “First you and then me.”
I read forty or fifty pages that first day. Naomi read none. After I read the first page I waited for her to pick up where I had left off, but she insisted, in a voice that bordered on pleading, that I continue.
“One more,” she said at first. And when that page had been completed, she added another “one more” to that, until eventually there were so many “pleases” and “pretty pleases” and “come on, pleases” that I was left utterly defenseless.
I looked up every couple of pages to see if Naomi was still paying attention, and of course she was. Her attention, in fact, never seemed to waver. I felt her staring at me sometimes when my eyes were focused on the page, and I realized she was taking it all in, not just the words, but me, and the scene that we had created together. Here we were, an older man and a girl young enough to be the man’s daughter, sitting in a store on a winter morning reading a novel together. I tried not to notice too much, to simply just live, but that was impossible. Every time I looked at her I became aware of just how seemingly perfect this time was. I thought about how years from now I would remember this with a crushing, heartbreaking nostalgia, because of course I knew even then that I would eventually find myself standing here alone. And just as that knowledge would threaten to destroy the scene, Naomi would do something small, like turn the page too early or shift in her chair, and I would be happy once again.
I had more customers then, and I treated each interruption to our reading as an assault on my privacy. When someone I didn’t know entered the store, Naomi would mark where I had left off so that I could keep my eyes on the person wandering around the aisles. She would take the book out of my hand, put her finger on the exact word or sentence I had just concluded, and hold it there until I returned. I kept one man, who came to the counter with a single roll of toilet paper under his arm, waiting for more than a minute while I finished reading a page I had just started. At first he smiled and was charmed by what he saw. He was one of the new white faces in the neighborhood who bought all of my bottled water. The charm wore off when I refused to acknowledge him. He responded by slamming the roll on the counter, inches away from my face, and storming out. Naomi and I read on.
I slipped into the characters as I read. I grumbled and bellowed, slammed my fist onto the counter, and threw my arms wide open. I knew this was exactly what my father would have done had he been the one reading. He would have made the story an event, as grand and real as life. He must have told me hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of stories, not just at night, but throughout the course of any given day, over breakfast, during lunch, in the middle of a conversation he might have been carrying on with my mother or friends. There was no wrong time with him, or if there was, he didn’t live long enough for me to see it.
The stories he invented himself he told with particular delight. They all began the same way, with the same lighthearted tone, with a small wave of the hand, as if the world were being brushed to the side, which I suppose for him it actually was.
“Ah, that reminds me. Did I tell you about—
The shepherd who beat his sheep too hard
The farmer who was too lazy to plow his fields
The hyena who laughed himself to death
The lion who tried to steal the monkey’s dinner
The monkey who tried to steal the lion’s dinner?”
If I had heard the story before, I let him tell it to me again. His performance was that good, his love of a story that obvious. Henry the chauffeur and his lavish monkey employers had their predecessors here, even though I never told Naomi that part of the story. Instead, when Fyodor Karamazov spoke, I waved my hands wildly in the air. I grumbled in a deep baritone and tried as hard as I could to do my father proud.
“Ah, you fools,” I shouted out, and Naomi smiled in delight.
Naomi found each of the characters as real as anyone she met in the street.
“Oooh, I hate him,” she would cry out after a particularly cruel antic on the part of the elder Karamazov. “He’s such a moron.” When it came to Alyosha, though, the youngest and gentlest of the Karamazov brothers, she was willing to fall completely in love. I read his scenes and lines with all of the aplomb and grace I could gather. Sometimes while I read, Naomi would lay her head against my arm or in my lap and rest there, wide awake and attentive, until forced to move. It was just enough to make me see how one could want so much more out of life.
The customers who came to the store regularly took to Naomi immediately. She judged them harshly, as I knew she would. The five to eight drunk old men who made their way into the store every afternoon to pick up another bottle of malt liquor were never rewarded with so much as a hello despite their best efforts. “Who’s that pretty young thang you got working behind the counter now, Stephanos? I know she can’t be related to you, not with a face as pretty as that.” “What’s your name, pretty girl? I used to have a daughter that looked just like you. She had the same pretty eyes that you do.”