Nothing is earned unless something is lost. You lost your father in a car accident, as mommy explained. You are less than a year old and don’t have language for anything, much less grief. The car and the tree and your father’s body all twisted in a single new animal. She eventually remarried, but there is nothing between that man and you. You wish this made your leaving easier. What you understand was labor: if you labored enough, eventually, the world stop skinning your back. Before darkness carves the world anew, you gather plantain chips, bottles of water, peanuts and candy to sell in the street during traffic. You are ten and you’re tall enough to come up to the passenger windows. Each day you either try to sell all your goods or reach N10,0001. After 6:00 PM, traffic is at such a standstill you’re able to sell everything and walk back home before dusk. You give most of the money to mommy, but sometimes keep N3,000 for yourself. You buy pounded yam and goat meat before heading home.
It’s the end of dry season2 in Ondo, which means the rain will return, but for now all water from the potholes have dried up. You meet your friends in the market.
“Ehn, Stephen! How far? Wetin dey happen? Gist us, na3!” your friends cajole you when they want something.
“Fine, jare. I dey no tire sef4. Body dey inside cloth5”. His friends gather around to hear his stories. It was mommy who told you were a storyteller, so I imagined here to dreamed of America. Told your friends you were going to be a big man running things across seas. Here, you get on a flimsy milk carton, puff out your chest, gesture like you own the world.
“Always story story story with you sef. Your story get k-leg!6” His friend, an older boy, balances himself on a large walking stick, head cocked back, looking at the sky.
“Oh yeah?” You then kick the stick out from under him and he tumbles into the dirt. All the boys are laughing. The boy regroups and is ready to fight you, but the other boys hold him back. He challenges you to an arm wrestle, loser has to pierce his nose. The boys look back at you and admire the attention. You love how they look up to you, even the older boys. While many of them come from wealthier families, your marks in school surpass of them and for that, you have earned their reverence. He knew to challenged you in front of them meant you had to take the dare or be outcast. Labelled ‘sissy’, ‘weak’. You accept despite knowing you’ll lose. That the boy, only two years your senior, had arms You put a small piece of wood in your mouth while another boy sterilizes a safety pin with a lighter. They offer to hold down your arms, but you shoo them away. You breathe in and the hot metal punctures cartilage. It’s impressive the pain, how it radiates and opens the face into a dazzling cruelty. You want to yell but bite down into the wood. The hoop is placed in and it’s done. Years later, the indent is still there. Your firstborn asks you about this moment and you laugh, awkwardly gesturing to the closed
The oceans grants safe passage, yes, but I fear the cost too great. You were 12 when Biafra7 happened and you don’t tell me much of what life was like then. Once, when asked about home and it was the first time you ever openly wept. You don’t know this, but you share this with your firstborn: neither of us know what “home” means. You are around the age your firstborn is now when you prepare to leave for America. It was less hostile then, but still too difficult to arrive here8. Many of your friends are rejected for visas. They tell you not to try, but you try anyways. You study some old letterheads, some of the language, and cobble together a forgery of papers. You pack what little you can and sit with your mother. You tell her you’re leaving for America to make something of yourself.
“There’s nothing for me in this here Nigeria. The government is useless.” It is a no-nothing night. You both are sitting outside. She quiet, so quiet she almost bleeds into the night. You worry she’s not there but then she shuffles in her chair, which creaks and groans against her weight.
“Mommy, e joo9. Say something.” Finally, she sighs.
“There is nothing to say. The Lord will be with you, as He keeps all His children safe. I will miss you. Call me, joo. Send money home when you can.” You awkwardly fumble for her hand in the dark. Before you realize it, you’re crying. She squeezes your hand.
“Joo, joo. Ma sọkun10. We have no need to cry if the Lord is with us. Say amin.”
You don’t know it yet, and you won’t know for many years, but this is the last time you will see her. Between ragged breathes, you say amen.
You pack a single bag. Take some dried fish for the long journey ahead. Hug your siblings and mom goodbye. Days before you forge a visa. it’s looks so believable, they let you pass through. In the story you would tell me later, by the time they figured out what you did, you friends would all attempt the same model and fail one by one.
You try to be a Good American, but this accent gives you away. This skin. Americans are impatient & rename you ‘stupid’ for asking questions. You arrive and everything is harsh: the sunlight, weather, people here. Even those who look like you are rough around the edges. Every month, despite working punishing hours, the money runs out and you have barely enough to eat. It’s been six months and you still haven’t sent anything back home, so the calls become more and more infrequent. “E ma binu, joo. mommy, I’ll call more, abeg11. The winters here are so cold, I can barely get out of bed. no mommy, I don’t have enough money to send back home.
I will next month. my friend just gave me a social security card to use, so I have to be careful. I’ll come through for you, I promise]. More months slip through your teeth. Then another year has passed. You survive winter, but now your joints ache. You had never seen snow except in the American movies you watched as a kid. It looked like the sky was falling: dizzying white flakes from falling on a perfectly pink tongue of a white person somewhere in a place called Massachusetts.
At the temp job, you spill an excess vat of chemicals between your legs. The solution burns through your pants and you’re sent home that day. For months after, your inner thighs bubbles & split & pools into sores. You have to call off work and lose money. You fear complaining that you’ll be found out. You dream about the day when you are an American and get to complain about things, demand your government to do better. Half of the following year goes by and you don’t call mommy. She calls and you have nothing good to share: still no money to send back, just enough food to last the week, class work piling up so fast, you wonder if you can keep up. Another year passes by. Then two. You hear that your cousin went to the UK, but you don’t phone because you’re embarrassed you have nothing to show for all your suffering. You want to call back home and ask about him, but so much time has passed you can’t bring yourself to face your shortcomings. Time unspools and the years slip by faster. In Nigeria, you dream about being a doctor, but are rejected from school after school. You know you’re good with numbers, so you settle on being an accountant. You catch up schoolwork, graduate top of your class. Valedictorian. You think about your friends from back home and how you wish you could show off. You graduate, but none of your family or loved ones come. You wouldn’t have enough money to bring them here anyways.
You’re reaching your 30’s. Many of your colleagues both here and abroad are married with kids. You are lonely, but more so, you feel incomplete as a man. You want a beautiful woman on your arm, someone to bring home to mommy. In Boston, none of the women here seem particularly interested in you. Your friends introduce you to some women, but nothing lasts. Despite this, you decide this is the year you will find a wife. Within a year you’re engaged to a woman from your neighboring state in Nigeria--Edo. You’ve heard stories about girls from Edo are beautiful, but foul-mouthed, pee standing up like men. You meet some other Nigerians in America and you go out for drinks to gist.
“Stephen, just make good money and a good woman would come,” your friends says, putting out his cigarette in the ashtray. It’s the evening during the week where your favorite smoking lounge is empty. You never smoked before, but you ask for a cigarette. You enjoy how the nicotine calms you down, opens your chest. That friend takes a sip of his scotch on the rocks, eyes drained on you.
“If you want something too much, you’ll lose focus. Just build yourself up and you’ll have your pick of women when you come back home. Don’t worry about these American girls, abi? How would you even bring them home?” You get up from the glass table and look out the window. Taking a long drag, you exhale. It’s not until after the stroke you quit for good. A year later, you meet her. Her sister arranges for you to meet. She fits all the requirements: she cooks, doesn’t ask too many questions, wants children too. You fight a lot because you think she’s a bad cook, but she’s given up meat and can’t taste your food to know if it’s what you like. She suggests that you learn to cook so you can make whatever you like and you laugh in her face. Call her ‘lazy’, that she won’t do the one job you ask of her. After months of arguing and threats, one day she leaves. Packs a bag and goes back to her sister. Panicked that you’ll die alone, you board a plane. You buy a ring. You arrive to her house and she threatens to pour pepper soup on your head. Her sister coaxes her and tells her to hear you out. You stay for a week, but the days of not smoking are putting you edge. You told her you quit for her, that the only reason you smoked was because you were lonely and had no family. She believes you, even you believe you. You plea with her to come back. You get down on one knee and rise into your new life.
Your wife is pregnant. Your first is child is a girl. You’re secretly disappointed, but when you hold her for the first, you weep. Not because she is healthy but because you remember your mother & how you wanted to share this moment with her & now you don’t remember where she is or if she’s even alive. You weep over your daughter & this is her first memory of rain. You have another daughter, then four year later a son. And another. You decide four is enough, your wife wants more kids. Finally, you move to Rhode Island, you buy a house and a car. A Mercedez. You have money, at last, to send, but you lost the way to home. You have no way now of contacting mommy or knowing if she is alright. You and your wife fight over money & bills; she curses you for not budgeting. You pick up smoking again; you smoke a pack a day. You drink too much & hit her. You remember your stepfather and how you couldn’t protect your mother from his hands. So, you walk out of the room. You come to the realization you have no idea who your wife is. You’re not sure if that’s alright or not. Your first daughter moves out when she’s 19. You resent her for not calling, you resent her for not needing you. she looks so much like your mother it scares you. Your firstborn son looks like a lot your brother, the one who lived with you for a short time when you came to America. The one who, for days on end, wouldn’t move off the couch. Would stare off through the window. Would weep uncontrollably, then laugh, pick up a second wind of haggard tears. One day, you return to the flat & all his things are missing. no note. you stare at the near-gutted apartment & think nothing of it. Between the years of sorrow and the year of marriage, your brother appears to you in dreams, sleeping under highway bridges, face-down in a ravine.
The last dream is of him standing in the desert. You reach for him & he fades to dust. A week later, someone from calls saying you brother was found dead. You would come to know the language year later: He was mentally ill. Forgive me: I thought he was lazy. Your wife finds pictures of your cousin online & you suspect he’s had a stroke. The way he covers one side of his body, how he almost looks propped up in his pictures. Your daughter returns home & asks you about your life, about your brother. You think of your son, how he spends days and weeks on end, not leaving his room. He dropped out of school & won’t say why. He tried to end his life a month ago. You & your daughter found him in a park with rope, surrounded by police officers. It’s the first time you hug your adult son. it’s the first time you tell him, “I love you. I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry”. You say it to your son, but you say it to your brother.
People say I get my eyes from you. The second dark swooping wing over the right eye. You never talk about Nigeria. Anytime I’ve come close over the years, something in you breaks. I don’t know if I’ll tell you in your lifetime, but I went to Lagos. I had the time of my life, but I’ll tell you that story another time. Let me tell you this: I come home this past summer and ask you about home. You don’t weep. you even laugh some. The soft moons of your eyes waxing. Finally, you talk about him, “My brother perished & returned to me as my son. They even look the same. God, what curse is this?”
* * *
2. there are two seasons in Nigeria: wet season (which takes place from April to October) and dry season (which takes place from November to March)
3. “How far? Wetin dey happen? Gist us, na” : “How are you? What’s going on? Entertain us”
4. “Fine, jare. I dey no tire sef”: I’m good, I’m not tired
5. “Body dey inside cloth”: The literal translation is “My body is still inside my clothes”, but it means “I am still altogether”
6. “Your story get k-leg!”: “Your story is suspicious”
7. Biafra: in this context, “Biafra” refers to the Biafran War also called The Nigerian Civil War
8. here: America
9. “Mommy, e joo”: Mommy please
10. “Joo, joo. Ma sọkun”: “Please, please don’t cry”
11. “E ma binu, joo, mommy”: Don’t be mad, please, mommy