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Nzube Nlebedim: The Newcomer into America is Uncertain

The newcomer into America from Lagos is a confused, uncertain you. America is a new place. But not entirely new. You know the feel of a crowd pushing into you. You know it is similar to the crowds in Yaba or Ojuelegba or Ishaga. Until you encountered New York, you thought there were more people in Lagos than there were in the world. America gives the newcomer that privilege of familiarity. But it seems to end there. As you stay longer, the doubts begin to creep in, like yam tendrils, twirling around its support. The doubts are strong. Sometimes, too strong. Are the smiles real? Are they plastic? They told you white people were naturally nice to everyone. They smiled and called you sir or ma. The old lady called you son, and her old husband, too? Son? You did not even know them. Only your old guys called you son, and that was when what was coming was a long scroll of tirade, sprinkled once or twice with a vicious knock on the head that left your skull tingling for hours.

You were told white Americans were polite. You experienced one yourself before coming here. Two years ago, you managed, after failing repeatedly, to hold on to a good job. Your boss was white (white, just white. You never realised if he was European, American, or just African. Many South Africans were white, come to think of it. Whichever way, he was white). When you made bad errors or failed to reach your daily KPIs, he smiled, and he told you, “that’s alright,” or “that’s fine.” When, in the sixth month, he handed you your sack letter, it was with the same smile and courtesy. It was not his fault, anyways. Things could not always go alright. Besides, they had paid a good severance package, good money to keep you up and keep you in good graces with your needy old guys at home. So, yes, you believed it quickly when, before you left Nigeria to do your MFA here six months ago, your many well-wishers said it again: whites were polite for the sake of policy. Ouuuu, don’t take their niceness on surface value, they said. They don’t like blacks, others said. Ask Malcolm X, one said. Malcolm X!? They were right. You imagined many Americans wore masks under their skins, masks which they pried off when you were not seeing. And you didn’t see a lot. You had never seen too far ahead. The details were usually, for you, a mist that took too long to clear.

In your MFA class, you, newcomer in America, are the only black person. You quickly get to understand that white girls (and women, too) liked being around black men. Your black neighbour, a Ghanaian teenager who looked your age, who sported dreadlocks and had a tooth missing from his front teeth, who never seemed to go to class, had at least four white girls visiting him every day. Two were regulars. And, no, they were not whores. Nor did they look it. They only loved the black penis, you thought, when you sometimes saw them leave. You winced whenever they waved and smiled at you. You hoped you could have them like the Ghanaian boy. But you have never been so lucky.

Time travels differently here in America. The other boys in class give you fistbumps, and it feels good, but then…

You have been shoved into another realm of existence. It takes some time getting used to it. For one, it takes some time getting used to sleeping and waking. Oftentimes, you find yourself sleeping at odd hours. Other times, you awake at the wrong hours, too. Sometimes, and that was some weeks after you arrived, night feels like day, and days feel like nights. And so, you move with the tides of this time, of this place, of this American uncertainty. The music sounds different. The food tastes vapid, like paper. But you like the burgers. You plug in earphones when sleep fails to come and loneliness does. Common comes on with the beginnings of a rap verse. You take the earphones off as quickly as you put them on. You realise you don’t want to listen to music. Your body is fighting to understand this feeling, this emptiness, this ennui, and so you’re up. You hear murmurs from the other room, and then a shrill female laughter. A light tinkling sound creeps towards you. A bottle dropped on soft rug, but not too soft to hide the sound. Another laughter. You go out to the store across the street. It is owned by an old African man. He’s black and wizened, and you never ask him where he’s from. You buy two large apples, pay and leave the store, disappointed you came all the way for just apples. You bite into the fruit, and feel the sharp tart bite at the sides of your mouth. You swallow the salty, light saliva, along with some of the bitten apple. It is cold outside. Your nostrils ache. You realise the apples here have tougher skins than the ones you buy from the Hausa boys in Lagos, the boys who go about town with their trucks filled with extra cheap red and green apples, dates and berries, sometimes kuli kuli.

Loneliness creeps in slowly, wrapping its tendrils around you until you find yourself unable to breathe. Inside, you find the heater switch and push it. You lie in bed, and soon enough begin to feel the heat spreading through. You snuggle beneath the thick sheets and pray the heat moves faster. You were taught in college Biology that osmosis is the movement or spread of solvent molecules through a selectively permeable membrane. The farther molecules spread, the less powerful they become, rubber stretching through to breaking point.

You start on the last apple, biting slowly, decisively, as you await the passing of time. You think of home in Lagos. You remember the freedom you had which America took away from you. America might never be home enough. You think of the fuller days, of family, of love and of friends, of Kachi, your ex whose hurt still gnaws into your bones sometimes. As you lie down, the heat seeping through, you spread your loneliness across your mind’s membrane, and in so doing, stretch it, diffuse and break it. You manage to sleep for about an hour before you wake suddenly. The room has become too hot. Your armpits and neck are wet. You turn off the heater and go outside. Loneliness creeps up again. It weighs heavily on you, tight and suffocating. You curse. You could do with a girl now. Across the stairs, you see the Ghanaian boy and the girl who waves at you. You wince. The boy nods your way before he shuts his door.

Back home, months ago, Bandele had told you some African men did it for money here in America.

“Big brokos na big money for black man for America o. You get big thing, you no need to dey work like slave before you pay your school fees or pay rent. No need to wash plate or serve food for McDonald’s.” Then, McDonald’s sounded fresh coming from him. It sounded hippy. “If you know how to use your machine, you be big boy. Just no forget to use CD. Some of these white girls carry trailer of disease. Once your cord enter their socket, you don catch virus be that. You go dey careful.”

Bandele had said it to you like he was certain you were going to do it. Bandele had travelled once outside the country. Although he was your friend, he never told you where he went, nor why he returned only after two years when his Engineering course was for four. Bandele was right. The black man meant something more to many of the white girls. He translated from mere flesh to something the white women could never understand. Your female coursemates were nice, too nice. They glowered at you, and you feel like T’Challa, or Kinta Kunte.

The next day, as you sat in class, you felt a sharp pull behind your head. You turned back and met shy laughter. One of the girls had just pulled your hair. You vacillated between a smile and a growl. For minutes after that, you still heard them giggling, suppressed laughter that began to jar at your nerves. Did they like you? Were they just drawn to this black power you were beginning to get used to, that emanated from you? You could not be more uncertain of when you’d become less uncertain. You listened to the white lecturer make reference to James Baldwin and his famous black character, G.

The doubts remain. You, newcomer in America, would scarcely be certain, or truly happy. And oftentimes, you yearn for home, for certainty. At home in Nigeria, you knew what a scowl represented. At home, you knew what smiles meant. The codes are pressed into you. You knew what it meant when a policemen waved his torch at you in your parent’s car and asked them to “show love.” Things were easier to grasp. A smile meant an approval, a frown meant disapproval. But not here. You could never be sure.

And so, you’re confused when, after class, a new girl asked you, “would you come to my room for a drink?” You don’t know her, never seen her before. Her upper teeth pushed more forward than it was meant to, so that she resembled a squirrel eating carrots. But her eyes are beautiful, her skin looks soft, and her breasts push underneath the thin fabric of her top, raising the letters W and D in the “woods” written across. You felt your penis harden underneath your trousers. It had been seven months since you did anything. This girl was strange. In Nigeria, girls never asked you out on drinks. You did the asking. The girls thought about it, and let you know if they could come or not. A Nigerian girl who asked a guy out on a drink (in her house!) definitely wanted to shag. But here, newcomer into America, you’re uncertain what this cue meant. You whisper a curse.

It is a nagging doubt that remains even when she pushes a piece of paper into your hands and walks off. You watch her go. The paper has on it in ink the number 42, followed by a street whose name you have not heard of or seen in any of the “green books.” You, newcomer into America, fold the paper and push it deep into your back pocket.

You find the Ghanaian boy outside the house drinking a can beer. It is colder today. You’re almost freezing. You nod at him as you always do, and he nods back as he always does. You never thought about it, but there and then, the idea blooms in your head, morphing into an overpowering urge. He might be able to help you with advice on how to “run” the girl. You turn back to him. He senses your movements and turns to look at you.

“Chale, you alright?” He had a deep, growly voice. You realise you have never actually heard him speak.

You walk towards him, and you tell him about the girl.

“She’s beautiful?”

You hesitate before you nod your head.

“She white, chale?”

You nod again.

“She give you an address? Home?”

You dip your hand into your back pocket. The paper is no longer there. Your fingers feel the looseness of your underwear. You shake your head at the Ghanaian boy and walk away. Uncertainty creeps up on you again.

Could it have been the cold that made you think this? Or the repeated wave of failure? The crippling, mind-numbing loneliness? Or just a supernatural black juju force? You cannot place your mind on it, but you agree with the suggestion that comes, more than you have ever been certain about anything before now. You decide that tonight, you will turn on the air conditioning to full blast, take off your clothes, lie above the sheets, shut the windows and doors, and then find out what it means when osmosis fails to break.


Image by Pexels / beringseaengineer from Pixabay (modified)

Nzube Nlebedim
Nzube Nlebedim
Nzube Nlebedim is a Nigerian writer, editor, essayist and critic. He is the founding editor of The Shallow Tales Review, and was managing editor of Afrocritik. He has served as the West Africa Field Editor of Africa Oil and Power, Mauritius. He lives between Lagos and Ibadan, Nigeria.

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