16 October 2019
Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Blaine needed what she was unable to give and she needed what he was unable to give, and she grieved this, the loss of what could have been.
First, he skimmed the e-mail, instinctively wishing it were longer.
In the last e-mail from her, sent just before he got married, she had called him Obinze, apologized for her silence over the years, wished him happiness in sunny sentences, and mentioned the black American she was living with. A gracious e-mail. He had hated it. He had hated it so much that he Googled the black American — and why should she give him the man’s full name if not because she wanted him Googled?
(...) that had tipped Obinze over, made him send her a cold reply. Thank you for the good wishes, I have never been happier in my life, he’d written. He hoped she would write something mocking back — it was so unlike her, not to have been even vaguely tart in that first e-mail — but she did not write at all, and when he e-mailed her again, after his honeymoon in Morocco, to say he wanted to keep in touch and wanted to talk sometime, she did not reply.
“Don’t be giving money to these beggars, sir,” Gabriel said. “They are all rich. They are using begging to make big money. I heard about one that built a block of six flats in Ikeja!”“So why are you working as a driver instead of a beggar, Gabriel?”
And after you register your own company, you must find a white man. Find one of your white friends in England. Tell everybody he is your General Manager. You will see how doors will open for you because you have an oyinbo General Manager. Even Chief has some white men that he brings in for show when he needs them. That is how Nigeria works.
The first time he took her to his mother’s house in Nsukka, just before they got married, she leaped up to help with serving the food, and when his mother made to clean up afterwards, she got up, offended, and said, “Mummy, how can I be here and you will be cleaning?” She ended every sentence she spoke to his uncles with “sir.” She put ribbons in the hair of his cousins’ daughters. There was something immodest about her modesty: it announced itself.
It saddened Obinze that Yemi was so poorly educated and did not know that he was poorly educated. It made him want to be a teacher. He imagined himself standing in front of a class full of Yemis, teaching. It would suit him, the teaching life, as it had suited his mother. He often imagined other things he could have done, or that he could still do: teach in a university, edit a newspaper, coach professional table tennis.
I am always looking for a better job. I’m completing my master’s now,” Yemi said, in the manner of the true Lagosian who was always hustling, eyes eternally alert to the brighter and the better (...)
When she held his hand during their campus days, she would squeeze until both palms became slick with sweat, and she would say, teasing, “Just in case this is the last time we hold hands, let’s really hold hands. Because a motorcycle or a car can kill us now, or I might see the real man of my dreams down the street and leave you or you might see the real woman of your dreams and leave me.”
People often told him how humble he was, but they did not mean real humility, it was merely that he did not flaunt his membership in the wealthy club, did not exercise the rights it brought — to be rude, to be inconsiderate, to be greeted rather than to greet — and because so many others like him exercised those rights, his choices were interpreted as humility. He did not boast, either, or speak about the things he owned, which made people assume he owned much more than he did.
it irked him slightly, because he wished Okwudiba would see that to call him humble was to make rudeness normal.
They never said “I don’t know.” They said, instead, “I’m not sure,” which did not give any information but still suggested the possibility of knowledge. And they ambled, these Americans, they walked without rhythm. They avoided giving direct instructions: they did not say “Ask somebody upstairs”; they said “You might want to ask somebody upstairs.” When you tripped and fell, when you choked, when misfortune befell you, they did not say “Sorry.” They said “Are you okay?” when it was obvious that you were not. And when you said “Sorry” to them when they choked or tripped or encountered misfortune, they replied, eyes wide with surprise, “Oh, it’s not your fault.” And they overused the word “excited,” a professor excited about a new book, a student excited about a class, a politician on TV excited about a law; it was altogether too much excitement.
If she bought all the textbooks she needed, she would not have enough to pay her rent, and so she borrowed textbooks during class and made feverish notes which, reading them later, sometimes confused her.
Kimberly’s unhappiness was inward, unacknowledged, shielded by her desire for things to be as they should, and also by hope: she believed in other people’s happiness because it meant that she, too, might one day have it. Laura’s unhappiness was different, spiky, she wished that everyone around her were unhappy because she had convinced herself that she would always be.
There was something in him, lighter than ego but darker than insecurity, that needed constant buffing, polishing, waxing.
She was in touch with Ginika and other people but not with him. She did not want to keep in touch with him. He wrote her e-mails, asking that she at least tell him why, what had happened. Soon, his e-mails bounced back, undeliverable; she had closed the account. He missed her, a longing that tore deep into him. He resented her. He wondered endlessly what might have happened. He changed, curled more inwardly into himself. He was, by turns, inflamed by anger, twisted by confusion, withered by sadness.And now here was her e-mail. Her tone the same, as though she had not wounded him, left him bleeding for more than five years. Why was she writing him now? What was there to tell her, that he cleaned toilets and had only just today encountered a curled turd? How did she know he was still alive? He could have died during their silence and she would not have known. An angry sense of betrayal overwhelmed him. He clicked Delete and Empty Trash.
There were, on a window ledge, photos of Emenike squinting in front of the Sistine Chapel, making a peace sign at the Acropolis, standing at the Colosseum, his shirt the same nutmeg color as the wall of the ruin. Obinze imagined him, dutiful and determined, visiting the places he was supposed to visit, thinking, as he did so, not of the things he was seeing but of the photos he would take of them and of the people who would see those photos. The people who would know that he had participated in these triumphs.
“How could you do this to me? I was so good to you.”
He was already looking at their relationship through the lens of the past tense. It puzzled her, the ability of romantic love to mutate, how quickly a loved one could become a stranger. Where did the love go? Perhaps real love was familial, somehow linked to blood, since love for children did not die as romantic love did.
“You won’t forgive me,” she said, a half question.
“Bitch,” he said.He wielded the word like a knife; it came out of his mouth sharp with loathing. To hear Curt say “bitch” so coldly felt surreal, and tears gathered in her eyes, knowing that she had turned him into a man who could say “bitch” so coldly, and wishing he was a man who would not have said “bitch” no matter what. Alone in her apartment, she cried and cried, crumpled on her living room rug that was so rarely used it still smelled of the store. Her relationship with Curt was what she wanted, a crested wave in her life, and yet she had taken an axe and hacked at it. Why had she destroyed it?
“I can’t eat tempeh, I don’t understand how you like it,” she told him.
“I don’t like it.”
“Then why eat it?”
“It’s good for me.” He ran every morning and flossed every night. It seemed so American to her, flossing, that mechanical sliding of a string between teeth, inelegant and functional. “You should floss every day,” Blaine told her. And she began to floss, as she began to do other things that he did — going to the gym, eating more protein than carbohydrates — and she did them with a kind of grateful contentment, because they improved her. He was like a salutary tonic; with him, she could only inhabit a higher level of goodness.
He used that word, “lazy,” often, for his students who did not hand in work on time, black celebrities who were not politically active, ideas that did not match his own. Sometimes she felt like his apprentice; when they wandered through museums, he would linger at abstract paintings, which bored her, and she would drift to the bold sculptures or the naturalistic paintings, and sense in his tight smile his disappointment that she had not yet learned enough from him. When he played selections from his complete John Coltrane, he would watch her as she listened, waiting for a rapture he was sure would glaze over her, and then at the end, when she remained untransported, he would quickly avert his eyes. She blogged about two novels she loved, by Ann Petry and Gayl Jones, and Blaine said, “They don’t push the boundaries.” He spoke gently, as though he did not want to upset her, but it still had to be said. His positions were firm, so thought-through and fully realized in his own mind that he sometimes seemed surprised that she, too, had not arrived at them herself. She felt a step removed from the things he believed, and the things he knew, and she was eager to play catch-up, fascinated by his sense of rightness.
It would have been easy for Blaine to find out, perhaps a casual mention from someone who had been at the lunch, but she never knew exactly how he did. He came back the next day and looked at her, a glare like silver in his eyes, and said, “You lied.” It was said with a kind of horror that baffled her, as though he had never considered it possible that she could lie. She wanted to say, “Blaine, people lie.” But she said, “I’m sorry.” “Why?” He was looking at her as though she had reached in and torn away his innocence, and for a moment she hated him, this man who ate her apple cores and turned even that into something of a moral act.
“You know, it’s not just about writing a blog, you have to live like you believe it. That blog is a game that you don’t really take seriously, it’s like choosing an interesting elective evening class to complete your credits.” She recognized, in his tone, a subtle accusation, not merely about her laziness, her lack of zeal and conviction, but also about her Africanness; she was not sufficiently furious because she was African, not African American.“It’s unfair of you to say that,” she said. But he had turned away from her, icy, silent.“Why won’t you talk to me?” she asked. “I don’t understand why this matters so much.”“How can you not understand? It’s the principle of it,” he said, and at that moment, he became a stranger to her.“I’m really sorry,” she said.He had walked into the bathroom and shut the door.She felt withered in his wordless rage. How could principle, an abstract thing floating in the air, wedge itself so solidly between them, and turn Blaine into somebody else? She wished it were an uncivil emotion, a passion like jealousy or betrayal.
Why must we always talk about race anyway? Can’t we just be human beings? And Professor Hunk replied — that is exactly what white privilege is, that you can say that. Race doesn’t really exist for you because it has never been a barrier. Black folks don’t have that choice. The black guy on the street in New York doesn’t want to think about race, until he tries to hail a cab, and he doesn’t want to think about race when he’s driving his Mercedes under the speed limit, until a cop pulls him over. So Appalachian hick guy doesn’t have class privilege but he sure as hell has race privilege.
He wanted to wait a few days before replying to her but he found himself that night in his study writing her a long e-mail about the death of his mother. I never thought that she would die until she died. Does this make sense? He had discovered that grief did not dim with time; it was instead a volatile state of being. Sometimes the pain was as abrupt as it was on the day her house help called him sobbing to say she was lying unbreathing on her bed; other times, he forgot that she had died and would make cursory plans about flying to the east to see her.
After he bought her a new car as a surprise, she told him her old car was perfectly fine, the Peugeot 505 she had been driving since he was in secondary school. He had the car delivered to her house, a small Honda that she would not think too ostentatious, but each time he visited, he saw it parked in the garage, coated in a translucent haze of dust.
Her e-mail made him happy. Seeing his mother through her eyes made him happy. And it emboldened him. He wondered what pain she was referring to and hoped that it was the breakup with the black American, although he did not want the relationship to have mattered so much to her that the breakup would throw her into a kind of mourning.
His claim, that he had missed her at every major event in his life, was grandiose, he knew, but it was not entirely false. Of course there were stretches of time when he had not actively thought about her, when he was submerged in his early excitement with Kosi, in his new child, in a new contract, but she had never been absent. He had held her always clasped in the palm of his mind. Even through her silence, and his confused bitterness.
Before she left, were bridesmaids banished from church services because their dresses had spaghetti straps? She did not think so, but she was no longer sure. She was no longer sure what was new in Lagos and what was new in herself.
Soon they were laughing and listing the things they missed about America.“Low-fat soy milk, NPR, fast Internet,” Ifemelu said. “Good customer service, good customer service, good customer service,” Bisola said. “Folks here behave as if they are doing you a favor by serving you. The high-end places are okay, not great, but the regular restaurants? Forget it. The other day I asked a waiter if I could get boiled yam with a different sauce than was on the menu and he just looked at me and said no. Hilarious.” “But the American customer service can be so annoying. Someone hovering around and bothering you all the time. Are you still working on that? Since when did eating become work?”
“One of the things I’ve learned is that everybody in this country has the mentality of scarcity. We imagine that even the things that are not scarce are scarce. And it breeds a kind of desperation in everybody. Even the wealthy.” “The wealthy like you, that is,” she quipped.He paused. He often paused before he spoke. She thought this exquisite; it was as though he had such regard for his listener that he wanted his words strung together in the best possible way. “I like to think I don’t have that desperation. I sometimes feel as if the money I have isn’t really mine, as if I’m holding it for someone else for a while.
He got up, his movements deliberate, and at first she thought he was coming closer to her, or perhaps wanted the toilet, but he walked to the front door, opened it, and left. She stared at the door. She sat still for a long time, and then she got up and paced, unable to focus, wondering whether to call him, debating with herself. She decided not to call him; she resented his behavior, his silence, his pretense. When her doorbell rang minutes later, a part of her was reluctant to open the door.She let him in. They sat side by side on her couch.“I’m sorry I left like that,” he said. “I just haven’t been myself since you came back and I didn’t like the way you talked as if what we have is common. It isn’t. And I think you know that. I think you were saying that to hurt me but mostly because you feel confused. I know it must be difficult for you, how we’ve seen each other and talked about so much but still avoided so much.”
They often stood on her verandah and watched the peacocks on the roof of the abandoned house, from time to time slipping their hands into each other’s, and she would think of the next time, and the next, that they would do this together. This was love, to be eager for tomorrow.
It was in Abuja that Obinze had come close to cheating on Kosi, not with any of the flashy girls in colored contact lenses and tumbling hair weaves who endlessly propositioned him, but with a middle-aged woman in a caftan who sat next to him at the hotel bar, and said, “I know you are bored.” She looked hungry for recklessness, perhaps a repressed, frustrated wife who had broken free on this one night. For a moment, lust, a quaking raw lust, overcame him, but he thought about how much more bored he would be afterwards, how keen to get her out of his hotel room, and it all seemed too much of an effort.
Perhaps he should have talked more with her, about the baby they were expecting and about everything else, because although they exchanged pleasant sounds and were good friends and shared comfortable silences, they did not really talk. But he had never tried, because he knew that the questions he asked of life were entirely different from hers.
If he could be with her, so extraordinarily beautiful and yet so ordinary, predictable and domestic and dedicated, then perhaps his life would start to seem believably his. She moved into his house from the flat she shared with a friend and arranged her perfume bottles on his dresser, citrusy scents that he came to associate with home, and she sat in the BMW beside him as though it had always been his car, and she casually suggested trips abroad as though he had always been able to travel, and when they showered together, she scrubbed him with a rough sponge, even between his toes, until he felt reborn. Until he owned his new life. She did not share his interests — she was a literal person who did not read, she was content rather than curious about the world — but he felt grateful to her, fortunate to be with her.
Her hair was covered in a black hair net, her face coated in a cream that smelled of peppermint, which he had always liked. He turned away from her. He had been turning away since the day he first kissed Ifemelu. He should not compare, but he did. Ifemelu demanded of him. “No, don’t come yet, I’ll kill you if you come,” she would say, or “No, baby, don’t move,” then she would dig into his chest and move at her own rhythm, and when finally she arched her back and let out a sharp cry, he felt accomplished to have satisfied her. She expected to be satisfied, but Kosi did not. Kosi always met his touch with complaisance, and sometimes he would imagine her pastor telling her that a wife should have sex with her husband, even if she didn’t feel like it, otherwise the husband would find solace in a Jezebel.
The next morning, he woke up unrested, his mind furred with a great sadness.
They would all die after trudging through lives in which they were neither happy nor unhappy. He tried to shake off the morose shadow that was enveloping him.