My decision to go to the United States of America was a final act of desperation. In my village, Sa’ra, where I had been a schoolteacher until my shocking dismissal, I had initially seen myself as a bearer of light, regardless of the difficulty of doing so in that forgotten village. In Lagos, where I went to live with my father, I had gradually lost my faith in my dear country. I had briefly considered going to England to join my mentor and former principal at Sa’ra, Dr Lookout, but America reasserted the pull that it had always had on me.
At boarding school, we had fed fat on a diet of American movies, especially. Bonanza. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Mission Impossible. Charlie’s Angels. The Godfather. We used to steal out to the Ali Baba Cinema, named after its Lebanese proprietor, to entertain our young minds with the celluloid fantasies of distant worlds. The great nights were when Indian films were on show. Sholay was our favorite. We would go back to school singing and dancing our version of Indian songs. Also great were the Khung-fu films of Bruce Lee and the exploits of the larger Ali Baba. We knew all the actions by heart and could dramatize the dialogues with accuracy. But we kept going back because these films took us from our little corners of the world and transported us to distant spheres in which reality existed only at the summits of the imagination.
Nothing, it seemed, could transcend those heights – except the incomparable American films. For those ones, we did not only dramatize the dialogues, we actually tried out scene re-enactments and took our nicknames from our favorite characters. That was how I became John Wayne II. It was not always easy to earn the privilege of being addressed by the name of any of our favorite stars. There were usually a number of people hankering after the honor and the competing desires had to be settled at the football pitch after “lights out” by refereed contests of
strength. I was unfortunate to have the strongest boy in school also interested in being John Wayne. I was strong enough to defeat other contenders.
Many of us dreamed of going to college in America. For some, especially those with rich parents, the dream eventually became a reality. For others like me, who either had poorer parents or parents who saw America as a land-of-no-return, the dream either developed into a torment or petered out. By the time I got my honors degree, I had outgrown my infatuation with America. It helped too to learn that some of my classmates who did make the great journey ended up doing menial jobs in America’s college of suffering or in prison for crimes ranging from drug-peddling to credit card fraud. One of them was deported from America, tried for a time to settle in Nigeria, and then went off to Saudi Arabia with a cache of cocaine in his abdomen. The last we heard about him was the gory tale of how his head was chopped off, by a public executioner, in Riyadh. After that, I could not think of Saudi Arabia without seeing his severed head rolling down a gaping street.
Although I had almost outgrown my infatuation with America, that passion had become a greater craze nationwide than it was in our Ali Baba days. Now, more people were fighting to go to the college of suffering, as if their lives depended on it, than the college of honors and degrees. Some of my classmates at the university, including Chidi, my best friend, took off for this purpose. Chidi went to Los Angeles and kept trying to excite me into joining him. By the time he moved to New York, two years later, our communication had slowed down to an occasional mail – and soon seized altogether. Sometimes, when my affairs tottered on a precipice, I experienced a small revival of my old longing for this great country, about which Chidi had written: “This place is indeed worth all the struggle to get in.” But such feelings simply bobbed and ebbed, until I spent nearly three empty and emptying years in Lagos. In all that period, I was only employed, as a schoolteacher, for two months – the time it took before my employment was again suddenly terminated as a “statistical error.” The lure of America once more seized me, this time with such potency that I doubted that it would have made any difference if I suddenly got a well-paying job. Chidi had ended his last mail to me with a sentence that had always been on my mind: “Every man of culture must come to America.”
But going to America had become as difficult, even more so, than getting a meaningful job in Nigeria. The number of people plotting to do so was so high that if the visa section of the US embassy were to issue a visa to every applicant, the population of the country, the largest in Africa, would dramatically drop. The compulsion was not only the harsh times that we lived in but also the beacon of a better life that returnees, often visiting during the Christmas period, signaled in their personification of what we understood as the “Great American Dream,” the new language of the globe, the Testament of the never-impossible.
But the visa section of the US embassy was not at all inclined towards issuing the highly prized visas indiscriminately. The rejection rate was so high that many applicants became strategists, procuring and discarding passports like bus tickets, acquiring and changing identities like peddlers in molue buses, inventing and reinventing stories like the last great raconteurs, and amassing all shades of ‘official’ documents like census bureaus. Sometimes, the most dogged made as many as ten applications, lived ten lives in only a couple of weeks, before finally being certified fit to be admitted into the United Paradise of America. The possibility that that day would eventually come, and the certainty that going to America was a life-changing event, kept them going.
When I made my decision, therefore, I knew what I would be up against, but I reasoned that it was at least a struggle with the possibility of eventual glory. My father was skeptical, especially because I was uncertain where exactly I was going.
“So, where are you going to stay in America? We don’t have anybody there.”
“My friend, Chidi, has been there for five years now. I think he already has a green card.”
“Chidi, the one that married an oyinbo woman? You think he stopped writing you for no
Chidi had written, when he first relocated to New York, that he was getting married to an African-American woman. My father did not particularly care for the distinction.
“She isn’t an oyinbo woman,” I countered. “And the break in our communication wasn’t entirely his fault. Sometimes, it took two months for his letter and my reply to make the journey to and fro Sa’ra. And I wasn’t as consistent in replying as I should have been.”
“So, you don’t even know where he is now?”
“I will find out. I will go to Enugu and get his address from his father.”
“And then you’ll go and join him, just like that? This world is more complex than that, Etiaba. The farther away you go from home, the more complex the world becomes.”
“I know life is never simple anywhere, but some places offer more opportunities than others. If Chidi doesn’t receive me well, which I don’t expect, I’ll take my chance on my own. I think he went there himself without anyone’s address.”
“The way you’re talking, are you sure you’ll ever come back if indeed you go to this America?”
“Of course, I will come back.” My father meant so much to me, but I hardly knew then whether I would indeed come back or not.
His consent marked the beginning of my struggle. I made a trip to Enugu to get Chidi’s address. Fortunately, his father knew me well and had looked on our friendship favorably. He was surprised though about the state of communication between his son and me, as much as he was perplexed by the fact that his son kept writing about visiting home without doing so.
When I returned to Lagos, I sent off a letter to my old friend about the great decision that I had made. When I did not get a prompt response, I sent another letter. Still, no response. It occurred to me then that perhaps he must have changed his address or that his father had mistakenly given me an old address. Once more, I made a trip to Enugu. The matter was too weighty to be discussed on the phone. To my surprise, Chidi’s father showed me a letter he had received only a few days ago from his son, from the same address to which I had sent two letters. Were my letters getting lost in the post office? But why should they? Usually, outbound mails were safe; the ones that were routinely tampered with were incoming mails. To reassure me, Chidi’s father wrote a letter and asked me to send it together with my own. Back in Lagos, I promptly did so, this time sending the letter by courier. A month passed, and still no response.
Confused, I ran to Leftie, a street-smart childhood friend who now ran a prosperous fraud factory. He would know how someone like me without even a letter of invitation could get an American visa. He did, but he wanted a fee that I could not afford.
“Look, Leftie, I don’t even have the money for the ticket yet. I don’t have the kind of money you’re talking about. Can you help me as a friend?”
“This is business, Etiaba. Can you pay half?”
I could not.
“How then do you hope to get to America?” he wondered. “I wish I could help, but there are other people to take care of.”
“All right, can you lend me the money?”
“Lend money to someone going across the Atlantic?”
“But people do it, I know. I can pay you back when I start working there.”
“That was before, my friend, before Nigerians got even trickier. Maybe you should rethink your decision. America is just a country, my man.”
“That’s like saying that Mars is just a planet,” I retorted.
I considered seeking out Malik, a college classmate who had become a much-sought-after prayer contractor, but I did not have any faith in his prayers. Besides, the visa racket, getting bigger all the time, was such that I did not want to turn up on the other side of the world with a fake or celestial visa.
Dr Lookout came to my rescue. He had been disappointed that I was not coming to join him in England, but he got over it and sent me the address of one of his friends and former classmate whom he said he had already spoken to on my behalf. I presented that address to my father as Chidi’s, and swiftly sent an email to this fellow who was to send me a letter of invitation. He was doing so, he wrote, because he had the highest respect for Dr Lookout, and he hoped that I was worthy of his esteemed friend’s faith in me. “A lot of Nigerians come out here and act crazy, and I don’t want to get caught up in that mess.” First, I was startled, then depressed, but finally I told myself that that must be American-speak, the virtue of a country in which people freely spoke their minds. What mattered most anyway, I chided myself, was that this fellow, Tunde, had even responded at all. My uneasiness did not completely go away though.
Tunde sent me the invitation letter that I needed. I was almost set for the battle of wills at the visa section of the US embassy. My father secured for me the financial documents that were required, and I was finally ready. I set out for the US embassy one early morning in February. The visa section would not open until seven a.m., but by the time I got there at five a.m., there was already such a crowd that my hope of being interviewed that day began to recede.
It was a waiting theater in full swing, complete with gatemen who made deals with applicants and influenced who got interviewed and who did not; wait-and-take photographers who served those who had put off taking a passport-size photograph until too late or had come with photographs a few centimeters longer or shorter than the precise specification; food vendors who supplied the hungry and the peculiarly frightened with nourishment; traders who sold or rented queue spaces, canopy spaces, benches, even pens; beggars who cajoled the applicants that God would recompense them for seeing to the need of beggars but that the visa section of the US embassy could not be trusted to reward their quest; preachers who spoke of a greater heaven, which no one was interested in right then. I did not have much more than the visa fee, so there was no question of buying a space in the queue from touts who must have stayed in line all night 6
or of bribing the gatemen.
The next day, I came back at three a.m. The day after, at one a.m. On the fourth day, I came at seven p.m. and spent twelve hours in a dead queue before the visa section finally opened for the business of the day. It was in that queue that I began to wonder about America. The embassy itself looked quite neat, but the stench from the gutters outside – and the vicious mosquitoes they convoked – made me wonder. Was it simply that the embassy made a fastidious distinction between its territory and the immediate vicinity? Also, there was the discomfiting notice, almost as big as a billboard: “The possession of a US visa is no guarantee that you will enter the US.” Was this another case of American-speak or a ploy to build a double barrier mocking all the pain of getting into the visa section?
I wondered most because of the story of the man who had spent fourteen years in America, was brutalized and crippled by the police, and subsequently deported to Nigeria. He had erected a shack outside the US embassy, plastered with notices denouncing America as the land of hate. He matched the graphics with a rhetoric meant to destroy anyone’s illusion about America. “Yeah, you’re gonna meet John Wayne in God’s Fucking Country alright, but he’s gonna come at you like a white cop sticking your blackness up your arse. And don’t think for a minute you’re gonna get away with only meeting John Wayne. You’re gonna meet Charlie’s sniffing angels too, only they’re gonna come at your paycheck as the IRS, with the fury of God’s own thunder. And that’s not all, oh no, not by a long shot. You’re gonna meet the Godfather too, only he’ll smile all over you real nice and offer you a deal you’ll never forget because that’ll be his cue to the deportation cowboys called the immigration service.” It was as if he was speaking to me.
The good thing was that much of the talk all around me was buoyant – stories about people who had “made it” in America. An old couple going to visit their son in Alabama spoke glowingly about their visit last year. The woman spiced her descriptions with so much religious imagery that it was as if she had experienced a vision of the risen Christ. A young man who was going to study for a doctorate in Law was floating on several wings. “They gave me a five-year scholarship, without even knowing who I am. I passed the LSAT, that’s all. And someone was asking me why I want to do a Ph.D in Law. Can you imagine that? What has this country ever done for me that I should not emigrate to God’s own country?” Someone advised him: “Don’t tell them in there that you’re emigrating-o.” “I know that,” he replied, with the air of someone who had already held several mock visa interviews with himself – and passed them all. A pregnant woman who was going to give birth so that her child would be an American citizen spoke of America as the future. A tout who was in line so he could sell the space to a genuine applicant shook his head. “You see how life be?” he said. “Me I no fit go ’merica. When una come back now begin dey speak for nose una no go remember again say na me and una dey for line once upon a time.” Several people comforted him that he might still “make it” one day. “Na so Nigeria be. You can never tell.”
The liveliness died out when the visa section opened to applicants. All the apprehension that had been talked under the surface reared up firmly like a spirit defying exorcism.
“Nothing to worry about,” said a middle-aged businessman who had three passports stapled together, evidence of his frequent travels abroad. “These guys are pros. Once you have the correct documents, you’ll get your visa. But you can’t fool them.”
I am not sure that he reassured anyone, including himself.
By the time I got into the visa section, my hands were shaking so badly that I had to hold them together to be able to answer the plethora of odd questions on the visa application form – whether I had ever been a prostitute, or sold drugs, or been diagnosed of an incurable disease, or plotted against America, or been in jail, and on and on.
“These guys are funny,” I said to the man near me. “Do they really expect anyone to answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions?”
“Shh!” he said with alarm, his head swiveling in all directions. “Remember what that guy said outside? These people see and know everything, so you better not mess with them.” He was already trying to speak like many of the other applicants, with a supposedly American inflection.
I think I finally gained a bit of confidence from the thick anxiety all around me. As the interviews began, in screened booths, and the number of rejections grew – including the fellow with three passports and the couple going to visit their son a second time – my confidence began to fluctuate. It was the long wait that finally anchored it. I had already been in the queue for twelve hours. When the interviews started, it took another six hours for it to get to my turn. By then, I was so tired and hungry that the state of my stomach had degenerated from rumbling to diarrhea. I began to make recurrent visits to the toilet. By the time my number was called, in a group, I was in a condition where all I wanted to was to go home – with or without a visa.
It seemed settled that none of us in my group would get a visa when we were sent to the booth of a fresh-faced man who had already issued enough rejections to make him particularly notorious. Everyone else in my group drew back from our potential interviewer’s glass partition as if they would rather disappear into the wall than go towards him willingly. I could discern from the toothpick in his mouth that he must have just come back from lunch. From the way he was digging his teeth, he must have enjoyed his lunch. If he was ever going to issue an easy visa, I reckoned, this was the best of all possible times. So, I went forward.
The interview was a disappointment after all the preparations and anxiety. He took my documents, glanced at the letter of invitation, played a quick game on his computer, and rather reluctantly discarded the toothpick.
“What are you going to do in America?” he asked, looking at me fully for the first time.
I let myself down after all. Words failed me on the first attempt, before I managed to stutter: “Vi-sit.”
“You can afford leisure travel?”
“My friend is taking care of my expenses.”
“Where else if not America?” I wanted to say to him. “I’ve always wanted to go…to visit America, and that’s where I have a friend who…,” I began to say instead – before he cut me off.
“What’s your job status?”
Why was this man now spending more time watching me than examining the sheaf of documents I had tendered, which answered such questions in impressive detail?
“I’m a manager in a computer firm.” My father’s friend, Achike, had kindly contributed a letter in which he accorded me the status of “manager” in his two-room cyber café that he had re-described as “Achike Computers Limited.”
“Come back tomorrow afternoon and pick up your visa.”
My interviewer was already making geometric designs on my application form. My reaction made him look up, and a smile – was it? – played around the corners of his mouth as if he was a trickster-god at the Gate of Life.
“Thank you,” I hurriedly said and left.
I still did not believe that I had indeed passed the final test that easily until I held my passport, with the visa in it, in my hands the next day. Olisa, the student who was going to study for a doctorate in law must have also suspended belief, because while he had left quietly the previous day, he was now dancing about – with his passport tucked away in a deep pocket. We exchanged our American addresses like two people who were used to that sort of thing and airily promised to contact each other.
My father was not a rich man, but he arranged for my ticket fare and what he called “a little pocket money.” Achike threw a small party for me. He was already calling me “Americana.” “Listen, Etiaba Americana,” he said, “the consolation for a departure is a vision of the drama of return. You must never forget home, and you must strive to make your father proud.”
Another week passed. On a dewy night late in February, I passed through Murtala Muhammed International Airport on my way to JFK International, with my father’s leave-taking admonition ringing in my ears: “And after America?” He had never been a demonstrative man, and I knew that the long embrace he gave me on that night was the voiceless cry of a man who had known pain like a passage rite. He would rather that I did not go, but how could he tell me to stay when my life was merely tunneling from one dead end to another?
The flight was scary, especially because I had never been up in the sky before. Watching the clouds bunch up and dissipate as the big aircraft glided through them, remarking the sounds and smells and motion around me speak of far away, I felt a gravity to the journey that transcended going to America or any fixed spot on the face of the earth. It was as if we were winging our way through a celestial passageway, with the suspended possibility of a life-changing descent. Sometimes, the plane would rock and sway, and that was sufficient to keep me awake most of the time. Looking down, when there was anything to see, at cities spread like toys, at water-bodies coiled like self-elongating boa-constrictors was also not calming.
My first moment of panic, a mild one, was trying to operate the small screen attached to the back of the seat in front of me. I had been impressed that every passenger had his own screen, but the underarm of my seat had so many gadgets with confusing markings – such that when I finally managed to turn the television on, I could not channel-select. The elderly woman beside me, who was dressed in ankara, silently watched me fidgeting with the remote control, which I was determined to master on my own. She leaned across without a word and pressed a knob or two on the remote control in my hand; the screen in front of me became a mini theater.
“Thanks,” I said.
“You’ve been long in Nigeria,” she responded, smugly.
It was not even a question, and it pained me that my expression of gratitude was already beyond recall. I looked at her again, no longer sure that she was on her way to visit her son or daughter, as I had first thought. Maybe she was one of these new-age merchants who now traveled overseas so much, importing everything from expired biscuits to used handkerchiefs, that they no longer felt any need or even had the time to change their mode of dressing either to or fro their latest destination.
I was a bit mollified when, during dinner, she asked a flight attendant for a second dinner pack and was rebuffed. “I’m sorry,” said the attendant, with a modulated smile, “but we don’t have any seconds over here.” I felt that the attendant had subtly asked her the question I would have loved to: “You’ve been in the air long, you in economy class?”
My major moment of panic was toward the end of the flight, shortly before the in-flight announcer broadcast our impending descent into JFK International. Landing forms in different color codes had since been distributed in preparation for the event. The elderly woman beside me, with whom I had not exchanged another word since her smug response, stood up, opened the overhead compartment and began to fumble in one of her bags. Everywhere I looked now, people were burrowing out thick jackets and masquerade-like overcoats. I needed no telling that I was in a special kind of trouble.
The thickest dress I had was the suit I was wearing, which I had supposed would withstand any kind of cold. At the airport in Lagos, seeing none of my fellow passengers dressed in exceptionally chunky robes had reassured me. Some had even boarded the plane wearing short-sleeved vests or navel-length blouses. All through the flight, I had used the overnight blanket distributed by the flight attendants as additional protection against the conditioned temperature of the aircraft interior. My only hope now was that my host would be waiting for me in the arrival hall and that he would have a quick-fix solution to my problem.
He was not, although he had confirmed that he would pick me up at the airport. I had had a smooth passage through immigration and customs, so it could not be that he had waited around for me and left. Or, had he been held up unexpectedly? I hung around the arrival hall, pacing and praying, watching out for anyone that looked like the light-skinned man with high cheekbones whose appearance I had studied in detail in the photograph that he had sent to me.
After about two hours, by which time my co-travelers had left and the flurry in the arrival hall now spun around a new planeload of passengers, I decided I would have to brave going into the city on my own – to Tunde’s home address. But I was hardly out of the door before I turned around and scurried back inside. It was so unbelievably cold outside the heated airport interior that my recent resolve had pitifully collapsed.
It was only then that I seriously began to consider using the telephone. There were many phone booths around, but I was simply unused to the telephone – even more so a public telephone in a new, overwhelming environment in which I suspected that people were looking at me in a knowing manner. I must have watched the traffic around the nearest phone booth for about half an hour, gradually bolstering my confidence. I had to do something, I kept telling myself. It had taken a lot to get me to America, and the rest was principally up to me. I could not just sit around, until maybe the police began to take a closer interest in me.
The soft voice came from behind me, breaking into my concentration with its miscellaneous accent. I swung around.
“You must be Eti-aba?”
He must be Tunde, my host, with a voice I had not expected. Even in the wool jacket he was wearing, I could not have failed to recognize him.
“I’m sorry I’m late. I got the date mixed up. I thought you were arriving tomorrow.”
I was so relieved to see him that all my cumulating resentment vanished. I felt saved from a trial that had been growing in my imagination during the three hours or so that I had been waiting, too petrified to even seriously begin to contemplate how to deal with the situation. All I had seen of America, of New York, so far was the architecture and the traffic at the airport, but I already had a sense of being in a new world in which my Sa’ra wisdom and my insufficient Lagos savvy would not immediately suffice.
“Why didn’t you call?” he asked me when we were in his car, en route to his house in lower Manhattan. “I know I sent you my cell phone number.”
“I…I lost my address book.” I was too embarrassed to tell the truth, although he had shown greater understanding than his first mail had led me to expect. Seeing that I was ill fitted for the weather outside, he had asked me to wait while he brought the car around, as close to the door as was possible; then, he had helped me carry my bags into the boot of the car.
“You lost your address book – at the airport?”
“Oh no, I think I forgot to pack it.”
“It’s fortunate then that I asked the secretary in my department to remind me about your arrival today.”
As I learnt more about Tunde, it became clear that he was not the irritable grunt that I had presumed, only someone who wanted things straightened out right from the start. He was a professor of Physics at New York University, but he had decided to move back to Oxford at the end of the current semester. That meant I had only three months to stay with him before he left. “You’ll survive,” he said to me. “This is a country of immigrants.”
I would learn, on the streets of New York, that Tunde’s “immigrants” did not properly include people like me who had arrived from the back of beyond, and recently too. That title only fondly embraced the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers and, among others, Jewish and Irish families who had passed through Ellis Island several years ago. I was a black man with an un-American accent and a six-month visa, cut down to three months by the immigration officer who had stamped me in, which I intended to contravene. I was an alien.
“Do you go to church?” Tunde asked me the next day.
“Not really,” I said truthfully.
“You should start. The church people here could help you settle down fast. I know they’ve helped a couple of people in your situation.”
I had been raised a Catholic, because my father never entirely lost his faith – although he had become an infrequent churchgoer since after he lost his family and an arm in the Nigeria-Biafra war, sometimes doubting as much as he wanted to believe. It was not difficult, therefore, for me to show up the next Sunday at the Church of St Francis of Assisi in our predominantly white neighborhood. Tunde, who did not go to church himself, dropped me off, rehearsed me on finding my way home, and left. It was a small church and could easily have been tucked into St Dominic’s Cathedral in Lagos that my father irregularly attended. But, even as small as it was, it was almost empty, except mainly for old people who wanted to make their peace with God before departing this world – or who simply needed the social relations that the church facilitated.
There was a reception after the mass, consisting of verbal sacraments and a light meal – although I had not learnt to look on a twin piece of bread with a wafer of meat or a stuffing of vegetables in between as a meal at that time. It was a strange scenario for me: a church that treated its members to a post-mass buffet, instead of the priest having to rush off to another mass. In such a church, a newcomer like me could not remain anonymous. I was sucked into a round of introductions and re-introductions, with a lot of intervening questions.
“Where are you from?”
“Yes, West Africa.”
“I know a couple that went to Kenya on safari a few years ago. Is that near Nigeria?”
“Oh no, Kenya is in East Africa.”
“Where do you live in Nigeria?”
“Lagos. It was the capital until a few years ago.”
“Is it large, as large as Manhattan?”
“It’s larger. It’s the largest city in Africa.”
“Really? Are there a lot of Christians there?”
“Yes, many, and many Muslims too.”
“Do you all get along?”
“Most of the time.”
“Why are you in America?”
“I’m on a visit. I came to spend some time with a friend of mine.”
“That’s nice. How do you like it here?”
“It’s a fine place, but it’s very cold too.”
“But it hasn’t been a mean winter this year, really.”
When I got back home and narrated my experience to Tunde, he muttered: “That’s the logic of America.” I could tell though that that was not what was worrying him right then. “It seems your travails at the US embassy in Lagos really scarred you, so you think that every American who asks you why you are here must be part of the immigration police,” he said to me. “These church people will help if they can, so you should open up to them. The other options don’t look good. One is to go to an immigration lawyer, and that will cost you a lot of money. Besides, you could simply end up with a quick education on immigration technicalities. The other is to get a ‘black job’ at a diner or someplace cleaning out the garbage or washing the dishes, and trying to be one step ahead of the immigration service. There must be someone in that church, the priest maybe, who can help you at least get a work permit. I know, because I asked around before you arrived.”
Once Tunde assured himself that I was indeed worthy of Dr Lookout’s recommendation, our relations improved. I never did get to know him very well, because he spent a great deal of his time on campus. He had spent twenty six years abroad, been in and out of a marriage and had arrived at that stage where all that mattered to him was his immersion in his work. “To fail in one area of life is excusable,” he would say; “to fail in two is regrettable; to fail in all is unforgivable.” Although he had already lived in America for ten years, he had no friends that I knew of. His recreation consisted mostly of cutting the lawn on weekends and reading National Geographic, mapping out great journeys to smoky mountains and historic trails that even he must have known that he would never make. He still spoke of his village as part of the Western region – not because he was unaware that Nigeria had since been broken down into smaller political divisions, but I think he gave up on the country earlier than many other émigrés. And he had assumed a cliché as his motto: “Wherever the star shoots, let it shine.”
But he was right about the church. It was the Church of St Francis of Assisi that resettled me in America. The parish priest, Father Mark O’Connor, was so moved by my story – how my father lost his family and his arm in Biafra, how I was unfairly sacked at the Sa’ra Grammar School, how I had a job for only two months in almost three years – that he took up my case with vigor. “Your story is extraordinary,” he said to me, “like something out of Ireland itself. But God never forgets His people. And I know Dr. Tu-n-de. He’s a major scholar, whom I would have loved to also be even a modest Christian.” He figured out how to help me get a work permit, a feat that was so complicated that I blessed the day I walked into that church, and Tunde for leading me there, and Dr Lookout for leading me to Tunde, and Sa’ra for leading me to Dr Lookout, and my father for rooting me in Sa’ra.
I moved into a one-room apartment and started work in the acquisitions department of the New York University bookstore the week Tunde left. I had sent a postcard to my father the week of my landing at JFK, announcing my safe arrival in New York. Now, I wrote a letter announcing that “I have indeed arrived in America.” He sent me an email, from Achike’s cyber café, informing me that he had once more been passed over for promotion to the top position in his unit of the ministry but that otherwise he was well, and Achike too. I shared the news with Father O’Connor, who twirled his beard and made his typical comment: “God never forgets His people.” I had continued to go to the church, mostly as a courtesy to my benefactor, and I remained a steadfast member until he was transferred to a parish in Montana. The last communication I had with him was an email he sent to me encouraging me to remain a resolute churchgoer and reassuring me that “God never forgets His people.” But I had almost forgotten the church by then.
My job in the bookstore kept me occupied during the day. It was towards the beginning of another semester and I was involved in acquiring both required and recommended texts for students’ courses. It was a job that I liked, sourcing and discussing books. I worried though that I had not made any friends, not for want of trying. Maybe, I told myself, I was trying too hard. I had a number of male acquaintances, but our relationship usually stagnated at the level of greeting each other whenever we met and inquiring about this and that, sometimes discussing the world as if we did not live in it. But almost every time I opened my mouth, my audience would suffer a hysteria of partial deafness. Since I was not inclined to relearn how to talk, I began to speak mostly to those who spoke to me – as long as they did not keep forcing me into the lane of repetitions or begin to repeat every other word I said in their own prized accent.
My search for a female friend turned out better. It started with the hint of a promising relationship with a stylish white American, who wore her dresses like personalized fashion statements and plastered herself with rings – nose rings, ear rings, ankle rings, finger rings, even the index of nipple rings. She was a junior at NYU and her name was Missy, or so she preferred to be called. Our meeting was promising in that, after conversing on the exotic at the cafeteria for about an hour, she gave me her phone number. When I called her to set up a first date, that promise began to cloud over.
“There’s something I need to know,” she said. “Do you get high?”
“I’m African, you know. I never get low.” It was an attempt at humor, to evade answering a question that I was unsure what the right answer was.
“I mean: do you do stuff?”
“Depends on the stuff.”
“Come on, it’s either you get high or you don’t. I can’t go out with you if you don’t do stuff.”
I only had a vague idea of what she was talking about, but since it was obviously an important test for me to pass, I said: “Sure, I do stuff all the time.”
It was a ruinous outing. We went to a ‘rave’ where the techno music was insufferably metallic and loud, and everyone was so buoyed up by Ecstasy or Adam that it was as if I was witnessing a surreal realization of a mass levitation project. I was so noticeably out of place that Missy simply floated towards a fellow in an all-leather outfit who had long risen above the level of a mere mortal like me. I left quietly.
After Missy, I began to date Kristal, a graduate student from Belize. Her ancestors, she told me, had been Igbos – like me – shipped over to the Americas as slaves. So, we often fondly called each other “my brother” or “my sister.” She had only one more semester to go, and she was already engaged back home. I did not know that though until a month into our relationship, when her fiancé called her on her cell phone in the middle of the night.
Her own “high” was the theater. So, we spent several evenings at a small, dense-toned theater near the campus called The Stage. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Hatful of Rain. Amadeus. Constant Star. Stones in His Pockets. Hamlet. Private Lives. The Wizard of Oz. Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We watched them all. For me, it was a return, this time deeper in its impact, to a world that had fascinated me as a boy at the Ali Baba Cinema. For her, I think it was an escape from the tedium of living in America. “There’s a law everywhere you turn in this country,” she would say. “It’s hard to believe that people don’t get arrested for snoring at night.”
“You never know,” I told her, after we watched Private Lives. “Maybe you’ll marry this guy in Belize, and someday we’ll still run off together. Back home.”
“You’re rewriting the play,” she said, linking her arms with mine. “And life is not a theater.”
“It could be,” I said, “our theater.”
“It could be – except that I have to go back to Belize.” She pronounced it almost like Breeze. “That’s my home, really.”
She left the day after her graduation. She could not wait, she said. Our relationship had been of some importance to her, but not in the way that I had begun to hope. She had brought a breezy warmth into my life that I had been unable to find in America before her – and after. She had made all the heady phrases in my “Before America” journal actually begin to come alive – about “the joy of life,” “the ascent of the imagination,” “the land of plenty,” “the special theater of God.” Shortly after she left, I began a new journal: “After America.” And it was at that time that I began thinking of building a website, of creating a virtual community of people of like minds and experience, my own theater.
After Kristal returned to Belize and The Stage ceased to seize my attention, I had first turned to the television for companionship. I had never been a television buff. Back in Nigeria, the fitful electricity supply system and the near-monopoly of television stations by the government had not endeared me to the medium. In any case, it had been a more open world, sometimes with almost an excess of companionship. But, holed up in my apartment in New York, with the telephone as my best friend and lifeline, I learnt to sit in front of the television in the evening with a can of beer at hand, like a character in a commercial for an impossible cure for loneliness.
The “reality shows” first captivated me. The rage then was one about a band of sea-thieves shipwrecked on a desert island and haunted by nifty natives. It was an elaborate set, a rich attempt to provide vicarious enjoyment in the starkness of being and survival. It was number one in the ratings, and everyone was talking about it. Some people were also making bets about who would emerge the last survivor – and go home with a million dollars. It was a staggering sum, I felt, for such poor playacting. After some time, my interest waned. The “reality shows” were, after all, more built-up than real.
Next, I became a fan of a quiz show that promised a million dollars to any contestant who managed to correctly answer twenty questions. For each correct answer, the contestant won a twentieth of the prize money. Not surprisingly, contestants poured in from all parts of the country, some all the way from Alaska and Hawaii. What was I doing sweating my life away in the bookstore? For a time, I considered competing to become a contestant, but even if I could overcome the restrictive entry criteria, how would I know the answer to such a question as how “eggs Benedict” is prepared, or the state in America that has “Oro y platta” as its motto, or what one cartoon character said to another in a 1970s comic series?
I moved on to the late night talk shows, and I remained a fan for a long time. It became a great nightcap, a breezy way of summing the events of the day and exposing them in their laughable underwear. These were not shows that shirked or dressed up savagery, yet they were flush with the very thing that I had been missing since my arrival: laughter, rolling-in-the-sand laughter. Whoever had set the clocks of the late night shows at about midnight must have been in the spirit at the time. It was a good time for America to laugh at itself, before going to bed.
The timing was also right because the late night news, about an hour or so before the late night talk shows, dripped with so much blood and dissipated so much gun smoke that the late night talk shows were like strong bursts of fresh air. I had initially been drawn to the news as a way of knowing what was happening around me. Soon, I began to dread its strange-but-familiar revelations. At this stage, only my fascination with the late night talk shows remained. My interest in the evenings shifted to the Internet, a wider world with more variables. It also gave me a better way of keeping pace with what was happening back home, instead of the occasional obituary notice about Africa that cropped up between a murder and a tax sleight on television news.
The Internet was also another return, via a different route, to my past. At boarding school, one of the great things that had linked us to the world beyond was the allure of pen pals. There were the scams, of course, like sending our films to be processed in photo laboratories in London or ordering sunshades from merchants in New Jersey – and neglecting to pay the consequent bill. We told ourselves that these people must be so rich that they never seemed too upset about our not paying the bills, or that they were so foolhardy that they sat back in their offices across the ocean and expected their fanciful bills to move us to anything beyond scorn. But we were boys, and film addicts, and none of those scams ever compared with the thrill of pen pals – especially with young women that we slept with in our daydreams. Unlike the matter of the bills, we were not negligent in replying their letters.
The great hurrahs were when the replies came back with pictures and exhilarating pledges of love. The school roared when I received a reply in a large white envelope plastered with lipstick traces. It contained ten pictures of Alana, my pen pal from Beverly Hills, vacationing in Acapulco. The names signified to me by their resonance, and the pictures shimmered with the iridescence of youth and the colors of the beach. But the white envelope with the lipstick traces made everything else pale in comparison. I became known as Acapulco, or Acapulco Wayne, and that white envelope made me the favorite consultant to all other pen pal solicitors. Every one wanted to score like me, to own such an envelope and press it to his lips as if the traces were petals of flesh. I charged a nonrefundable tin of Bournvita for every letter that I wrote and a tin of Peak milk for every advice that I gave. Not only was I the best student in English, I had an impressive handwriting – a combination that served me, and my clients, well. I remained the sole owner of a lipstick-smeared white envelope though, an artifact I kept with me for many years.
The Internet brought back memories of those pen pal days in a wistful way. Nothing ever came of any of them in the long run, to the best of my knowledge. They bloomed and petered out according to a rhythm that was beyond us, but in their brief periods of bloom they blessed us with a grand vision of ourselves and of the world. I still thought about Alana sometimes, or rather her name would sometimes bob up in my mind. Now, all alone in America, I decided to trace her. I had seen and heard enough about America to know the sort of people that could afford to live in Beverley Hills. Had she really lived there? Had she in truth been as beautiful, as white, as she had looked then in the pictures she had sent to me? If I could find her now, now that she must also have outgrown the silly avowals we had been flush with as teenagers, what would we have to say to each other? But I could not even properly begin my search. I was stumped because, over the years, her surname had blurred in my memory. Was it Laupers or Lopez or Llosa or Lepierre or Lupons or Lupaski? What was the use anyway?
The only success I did record on the Internet’s People Search engines was my attempt to trace Chidi. For a long time, I had been too upset to bother about him. But living in America myself had made me reconsider. Maybe he was merely one other toiler in America, only making enough money to pay the ubiquitous bills. Or maybe he was just another alien searching for his soul in adult toyshops, where he would never find it. I did find Chidi on the Internet, and it was the last time I looked for anyone. He was in a federal penitentiary for a drug possession offense. He must have been writing to his father from prison or through someone else because he had already been inside for some years. I could not imagine Chidi, the Chidi that I had known, being associated with drugs. I thought about what next to do for a couple of days. Would it not be better to let him be than to write him and confirm that I was aware that he was in jail? But he had been my closest friend at a time, so I sent him a Robert Louis Stevenson quote card: “A friend is a gift you give to yourself.” So, you never forget, I added. I never received a response.
I turned to online dating sites and chat rooms. I was intrigued by the proliferation of such avenues, and how they harked back to the pen pal era. That things had changed since we searched for pen pals soon became clear to me. We had been bashful in those days, hiding our lust in honeyed words and Shakespearean sonnets. It was a brazen new age now, one that had little faith in the imagination. These sites thrived instead on soft pornography and leaping invitations: “Hi, I’m Jenny. I have green hair and love to wear mauve panties. I’m looking for a guy with purple eyes and the right inch.” What ever had happened to the chase?
I began to construct my website one snowy night in February, two years after my departure from Nigeria – or arrival in America. I would name it afteramerica.com, I had decided. Coming to America had seemed like a going forth to me, a sojourn into the heart of a magnificent newness. Now, it felt like a lonely return to a wizened future that I had already lived in in its morning glory.