The morning after Seth and I had our first fight that was, in typical first fight fashion, about nothing and everything at once, I woke up before he did. He’d kicked the covers off, or I yanked them from him in my sleep. His skin was blotched with pink and covered in goosebumps, so I pulled the quilt over him, gently. His eyelids quivered open.
“I’m sorry,” I said. And he said, “Me too.” We had already said that before we went to sleep.
The fight started when images of a Donald Trump rally flashed across the television screen while we were waiting for the waitress to take our order at a restaurant.
“It’s horrifying,” I said, “how many racists there are in this country.
Seth stared at the cocktail list, which annoyed me. I knew he had little interest in cocktails. He rarely drinks.
“What?” I asked, slicing his silence with a blunt knife.
I knew that we were both afraid of the words he would say next. He said them slowly: “I know some of those people. They aren’t all racist.”
“I mean, they aren’t only racists,” he clarified. “They’re more than just that.”
Seth grew up in Appalachia. The word nigger rolls easily off the tongues of many people in his hometown. He hates that truth about where he is from. He must wrestle with the complexity of it in order to accept, and in some measure to love, the people that are his home and his tribe. I understood that wrestling. My father was Ghanaian. My mother is Armenian-American. My father worked for the UN so I lived in six countries before I turned eighteen. Home and tribe are the unsolved questions of my life. But, it was two months before the election. Donald Trump had said that Mexico sends us their rapists. He had refused to condemn the KKK. He had expressed a desire to ban all Muslims from entering the country. At one of his rallies, a young black University of Louisville student named Shiya Nwanguma was shoved repeatedly by multiple men. Obscenities were spat at her—nigger, cunt. In the video of the incident, hate was palpable. Throw them out, Donald Trump shouted from the stage. By them, he meant people like Nwanguma, people like me. Black people. Women. She was escorted out of the rally. The people who assaulted her got to stay.
I could not conceive of, could not bear to belong to, an America with this man as its leader. I was having nightmares: A knock on the door, a sack over my head, a dark hole, eternity. I could not muster up empathy. Not then. Not for people cheering for Trump.
“You’re being a racism apologist,” I said to Seth, downing half a glass of Malbec and signaling to the waitress for more.
Seth shot back that there were other issues, besides racism, that people might be weighing in their choice of candidate, including global warming and war. He was speaking in a calm tone that infuriated me. “Neither candidate is looking really good on those issues,” he said.
“Yeah, but only one of them keeps a book written by Hitler on his bedside cabinet.” I pushed my plate away.
“I know that,” he said. “I agree with you. I don’t know why we’re fighting.”
We stayed up in my bed until two talking in circles in flickering candlelight. I just feel like you don’t understand why this is such an emotional issue for me. I do understand, but. We took turns saying those words. And round again.
Getting dressed the next day, we averted our eyes from each other’s bodies, suddenly shy. We went to sit on a restaurant patio near my apartment. I ordered an omelet, bacon, coffee, and a Bloody Mary, and he ordered orange juice and a dish that involved boiled eggs, quinoa, and beets. It wasn’t quite warm enough to sit outside, but inside was crowded and noisy. A boozy brunch scene. People working hard, despite their hangovers, to pick up the party where they left off the night before. We sat next to each other instead of face-to-face and I slipped my hands under my thighs so I wouldn’t gnaw at my cuticles or on the rough skin of my thumbs, hardened from years of self-inflicted wounds. The inside of my right thumb was already bleeding. It’s where I usually start tearing myself apart. I couldn’t think of what to say so I stared at the glass and steel tower of half-built condos looming above us. It looked mutant and ominous in the muted light of the overcast early afternoon. In just a few months, I thought, people would be living in there, watching television and doing laundry, having sex and conversations. They would file noise complaints against the restaurant; petition to close down its patio no later than ten p.m. People smoke cigarettes and drink Fernet Branca on the patio at night, their voices growing louder as the current hipster alcohol of choice loosens their tongues. I know: I am one of those people, minus the cigarettes. I have never been a smoker. I’m too afraid of cancer and also of that disease from the anti-smoking posters that leads to people having the tips of their fingers and toes amputated.
“That used to be a one-story second-hand clothing store,” I said. “Just a few months ago, I bought a long red coat there. Everything changes so quickly in Brooklyn.”
Seth pulled one of my hands out from under me and squeezed it. A rush of air that had been trapped in my chest flew out of my nostrils and the force of it made me a little light-headed. I took a gulp of extra-spicy Bloody Mary, fished out the green olive and sucked on its salty smoothness. We turned to observe each other for a moment, anticipating. He spoke first.
“Feeling heard is one of the most important things to me in a relationship,” he said. “Last night, I felt as though we were both having a hard time hearing each other.”
He was right. I wanted to tell him about the man on the street who looked like my dead father. That man was, at least in part, the reason I wanted a fight. But did the story begin with that man or with the winter when I was thirteen and my father died? I spent that winter looking up at the sky, searching for birds, longing for color that was alive. Because it was winter in Rome, I saw only grey pigeons pecking about on cobblestones and stocky black starlings flying over rooftops. Or, should I start with a reoccurring dream? In it, my father is in the rocking chair in our attic in Rome that was also our library. It was our favorite quiet place—walled with rickety shelves of aged books and reports my father wrote about famine in Ethiopia and food policy in Bangladesh. I am sitting at his feet, examining his grey toenails. I can see the little curls of hair on his legs, the ashy spots on his knees. He asks me what I want him to read to me and he pulls at his beard, a habit of his until the chemo made it fall out. Then I wake up, and for a second I think he is still alive. Walden, I want to say in answer to his question, because I know that he loves—loved—it. I didn’t really understand it when he read it to me as a child, but I understood the way he lingered on the language, the way he emphasized words like nature, truth, and eternity. Should I start with how, since he died, I hate to see men, especially black men, carrying little girls on their shoulders or fathers bending down to tie their daughters’ shoes? Or, with how the man on the street who looked like my father had ebony skin, a full nappy beard, and tortoise-shell glasses? Weaving all of that together seemed too hard, so I told Seth instead about absence, about silence.
“I couldn’t hear you last night,” I said, “because I was watching you walk out of that restaurant in my mind. All I could hear was the silence rumbling in.” To add to all the other silences, I thought, but did not say. I didn’t want to sound self-pitying, dramatic. He had stayed, I reminded myself. When I got back into bed after going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, he had stroked my hair for a little while. He had held my belly before he turned back over to fall asleep again. Now, we were having breakfast. His hand, solid and slightly clammy, was in mine. The seismometer in my head no longer signaled disaster. There was only a quiet humming, the quiet commonplace humming that told me that another Big One could happen but there was no reason to believe it would happen in that moment, not in that moment in particular.
The tagline of a 2015 Pulitzer prize-winning article in The New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz reads, “An earthquake will destroy a sizeable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.” I ripped that article out, stapled its pages together, and put it in a purple folder marked “Things to Re-read.” To me, when it comes to disaster, the question is not if; it has long been when. An image from that article stuck with me, haunts me, but affirms me somehow: A ghost forest on the banks of the Copalis River, near the Washington coast. The trees are barren. They have no leaves, branches, or bark. They are still standing, but they are dead inside. They were killed, simultaneously, quickly, by saltwater after an earthquake on January 26, 1700 caused the earth beneath them to plummet into the sea. The diagnosis of their cause of death is what led geologists and seismologists to the understanding that the coastal Northwest is doomed. To the discovery of a previously undetected subduction zone—the Cascadia subduction zone—that causes earthquakes roughly every two hundred and forty three years. That cycle is long enough to trick the people who live there into complacency. They might, for example, spend their days pruning the rose bushes in the gardens of their expensive homes by the sea; expensive homes that will, in their lifetimes or in the next, be chewed and swallowed by the beautiful land on which they are built. I had been those people, before my mother disappeared from my life, before my father died. I would not be one of those people again.
“I should have worked harder to make sure you felt I was on your side,” Seth said.
Often, I blame only myself for disagreements and discord. I allow or convince others, especially men, to blame me completely as well. Sorry, I told my ex-boyfriend Greg over and over again when he was breaking up with me, when he was telling me over and over again that he didn’t love me anymore. He asked me, with what sounded like hope, what I was sorry for. He blamed me because I was in part to blame. I had spent months lying about my feelings, pretending not to care when he didn’t show up to my poetry reading or when he planned a month-long trip to San Francisco and told me about it only after he had bought a plane ticket and rented an apartment. I lied about my feelings and then I punished him for them, sulking and staying out late drinking with friends, posting photos of myself feigning fun all over the internet. But he also blamed me because he needed to in order to set himself free without guilt. He needed me to confirm all of the things he should blame me for, and I did so willingly. I convinced him and myself that the slip must have been mine, that something I had done caused the shift in our relationship. But, faults are cracks where tectonic plates meet. Intellectually, I understand that. It was clear that Seth understood it. His understanding it allowed me to observe myself without the absorption of blame. Self-blame, I think, is a convenient but nocuous way of shaking free, temporarily, of trauma. It allows us to not be helpless. It allows us to focus on the symptoms rather than the disease.
I describe myself as conflict averse, but that is not quite accurate. I am not afraid of the fight, exactly. I am afraid of what comes next. During our fight, Seth probably thought my voice was shaking out of anger. But what I really felt was something between panic and penitence. I was certain that the end of us was coming, that I had caused it to come. I was sorry for that. But, knowing and accepting; being sorry for and being prepared to face the inevitable; are different things. At the first sign of disaster—the chorus of barking dogs, the glass of water shuddering on the table—we scream until the silence is tolerable. We cannot prevent what happens next, but we can forestall feeling the full force of it. We can distract ourselves from the terror with the awful sound of our own voices.
Sometimes I think that my memories are more about what didn’t happen than what did, who wasn’t there than who was.
I turned fourteen a month after my father died. On the day before the funeral, my mother told me, for the last time, that she would not come for me. She had left us when I was two. For my birthday, my stepmother who became my guardian took my sister, half-brother and me to dinner at our favorite restaurant in our neighborhood in Rome. Over the years, we had become friendly with the jolly little twins with twin mustaches and twin round bellies who owned it. One of them was named Luca, the other one’s name I can’t remember. Usually, we each ordered our own Margherita pizza. Now and then, I got prosciutto di Parma on mine. For dessert, we always shared the tiramisu and the chocolate tartufo. That evening, Luca and his twin greeted us at the door as they always did.
“Viene il signore?” one of them asked as he walked us to our table. Is the gentleman coming?
We hadn’t been out to dinner since my father stopped being able to walk, to eat solid food, to know the difference between his daughter and a stranger who had somehow found her way into his bedroom. “Where are you?” he had asked when I brought him soup that would be left uneaten on the tray, cold and curdled. He wasn’t looking at me, but rather past me, at nothing, his eyes unfocused. Maybe he meant who. Or, maybe he was not asking about me at all. Maybe he was asking about someone else from another time and place. Time and place, it seems, become confused in the minds of the dying, or else they just cease to matter. My strong, important, father, near dying, cried out for his mother in his sleep as a child would. At the hospital, doctors were forever asking him if he knew where he was. “Timbuktu,” or “The Waldorf Astoria,” he’d say on days when he remembered. “What kind of question is that?” he’d snap on days when he did not. He wrote a poem when he was bedridden, but before words left him. I keep a photocopy of it framed on my bedroom wall: I was not told/youth makes you grow old/that truth is only a refuge for the lonely. This from the man who read three newspapers every single day to ensure he had a nuanced view of the facts, who read to me from Walden: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” But, what is truth when you cannot be sure of where you are? When you are forced to confront that the end of your place in time, or the end of your time in place, is a when rather than an if? Those people I pictured pruning their roses on the Cascadia subduction zone can do so because that illusion of if is alive, still, in them, despite the warnings.
“No, non viene stasera,” I said because no one else was saying anything, and Luca or his twin needed to know whether or not to leave the extra menu on the table. He is not coming this evening, as though he might come again, some other evening, as though his ashes were not in an urn behind a wall of cement and wilting white carnations.
I remember very few events from that year, after the funeral. I remember the pigeons and the starlings. I remember the hack job of a haircut I gave myself because it felt good to be in control of something, to make myself as ugly as I felt. I remember that I wore, almost every day, my father’s burgundy sweater. I remember the ticking of his gold watch on my pillow. But, I don’t remember much of what happened. I do, however, remember that birthday. I remember it clearly, right down to the pesto sauce splattered on Luca or his twin’s subtly wrinkled white shirt. Right down to the woman at the next table’s long pointy red fingernails. Right down to the black leather menu with gold lettering that my father was not there to take. I remember it all because although I tried—he is not coming this evening—that was the night I stopped believing the illusion of if instead of when. “They are reduced to their trunks,” Schulz writes of the trees in the ghost forest, “and worn to a smooth silver-gray, as if they had always carried their own tombstones inside them.”
My Aunt Freda—my father’s younger sister—flew to New York from London for my college graduation. She and my sister and our friend Craig shouted my name from the balcony as I walked across the stage at Rockefeller Center, diploma in hand. But, I didn’t look up to wave at them because I knew that my eyes would seek out the empty seats or the seats filled with the loved ones of others where my father and mother were supposed to be. By that time, my father had been dead for eight years and I hadn’t seen my mother for longer than that. In order to qualify for the financial aid I needed to pay for college, I filed papers and presented proof to declare myself independent. As a student under the age of twenty-four, to be eligible to file financial aid forms as an independent, you had to be married, have dependents, be a veteran or active member of the armed forces, or be on orphan. When I tried to put the point of my ballpoint pen in the orphan box, to make a checkmark, my hand shook so violently that I put the pen down. I sat on my bed picking the pen up, watching my hand shake violently, and putting the pen down, for what seemed like hours, but was probably only a few minutes. On my nightstand were a photocopy of my father’s death certificate in Italian and an English translation of it, and an envelope containing a letter signed by my stepmother. She had, until then, been listed as my parent, even though we had never actually made that legal. The letter stated that she stopped supporting me financially when I turned eighteen and my mother’s whereabouts were unknown to me. This was not wholly true as I knew my mother to be in Sedona, Arizona. The private investigator she hired to find me told me that before I hung up on him and threw my phone against the wall. I knew where she was, but her whereabouts did not, then, have anything to do with me or with my ability to pay for college. It would be five more years before I would feel sturdy enough to call her.
To make the necessary checkmark, I took the papers to the bar down the street. I ordered a shot of tequila and then another. It wasn’t as though checking that box changed anything. That my father was dead, that my mother left when I was a toddler, that we had not spoken in almost a decade: These were all facts that had been true for a long time. But the box, I suppose, formalized their absence, gave it a name. Knowing and accepting the inevitable are two different things.
I had a one-night-stand that night—my first. When I woke in a mist of Patron and migraine, I couldn’t remember how he touched me, how he kissed me, if the sex was any good, if I came, if he came, if he held me afterwards. I couldn’t remember his name, but I was glad he was there. He was, for a newly official orphan, a minimalist version of intimacy.
“It’s weird,” Seth said after I told him about absence and silence, about how they haunt me. “One of the things I love most about you is how independent you are, but I guess you paid a price for that independence.”
I find it interesting that independent is a word that people often use to describe me. Where is the line between being independent and being alone? Between being alone and being lonely? If I am independent, I don’t think that it’s a choice or that it’s my nature, though it’s difficult to say who or how I would be had my life circumstances been completely different. I know that I can be perfectly content, on an hour-to-hour, a day-to-day basis, being alone. It’s true that I do not easily attach myself to people or places, or allow them to easily attach themselves to me. I rarely ask anyone for help with anything. But, what does it mean when seeing a man who looks like my dead father causes me to pick a fight with the man I love about a man we both can’t stand?
Children who are raised in orphanages, I have read in numerous studies (There are many studies of orphans in the same purple folder in which I keep Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker article.), often reach out their arms to be picked up, but as soon as they get what they seem to want, they kick and push and wriggle away. Then, once they have escaped, they throw themselves on the floor in utter despair and demand to be picked up again. The first time I read about that phenomenon, I laughed out loud. The story of my life, I thought. Then, I curled up on my carpet and cried.
When I was eight, I wrote the story of my life in green pencil on several pieces of unlined white paper. I found those pieces of paper, folded in quarters, between the pages of Le Petit Prince, when I was packing to leave for college in New York.
On the first page was a list of places and what I assume to be notes about what they represented at the time, what they meant to me. My father’s job meant that we moved to a different country every two years or so. Of London, I wrote about my aunts and my cousin Laura, of how I missed them. Of Rome, I had this to say: Sometimes when we lived there we went to the Colosseum and to Pompeii where a volcano erupted and everyone was stuck in lava like statues. I liked my teacher there and I liked eating pizza. Of Ghana, I wrote about a snake that killed my grandparents’ dog and of how my father attempted to take me to a soccer game, but we arrived to find an empty pitch despite the fact that the rain had stopped hours earlier.
On the second page: I do not know where we will live after this. We used to live in Italy. Now we live in Ethiopia in a hotel because there are no houses for us. Maybe when we get a house we will have swings. My sister, baby brother, and I do not have many toys because they got lost in the boxes that went on the boat before we flew here. My father makes me laugh. I do not like it when he goes on missions because that means he is not home to say goodnight. Sometimes he brings me presents like a tortoise or my orange shirt from Pakistan. I wrote ‘missions’ with only one ‘s’ in the middle.
The final sentence in the story: I have to make sure that I don’t get left behind when we move. This sentence is underlined.
I have lived in New York for my entire adult life, but it is only in the last year that I have started to call it home. I don’t know what changed. Perhaps it was falling in a grownup kind of love—the kind that had us talking about buying real estate and growing old. Perhaps it was just the years of memories accumulated on street corners and park benches and in Irish pubs. I was surprised when the meaning of the word home became about more than the apartment I sublet in Brooklyn. This change, however, is not an answer. It brought with it, in fact, another set of questions—questions about what it means to claim a city; about what to make of the country that surrounds it. It brought with it a renewed vigilance, a sense that I had something to lose.
After Seth and I paid our check, we went for a walk to get me more coffee. The coffee at the restaurant was weak and got cold too fast in the little teacups. I wanted to hold a large hot cup of coffee in my hand. There is something about a large hot coffee on a Saturday afternoon. I looped my arm through Seth’s as we walked and he whistled jazz. He tends to whistle his emotional rhythm, so the tempo—bebop not ballad—quieted my seismometer. We were okay.
“It’s going to be seventy degrees tomorrow,” I told him. “Even though it feels like winter today. Isn’t that crazy?”
“Soon, we’ll be able to go to the beach on weekends,” he said.
I liked that he was talking about the future, a future with me still in it. The sun snuck out from behind the clouds and I tilted my head up to meet it.
“Just tell me when you’re scared of the silence rumbling in,” Seth had said at the restaurant. And I had promised him I would. No one had ever asked that of me before. Could it be that I expected silence because silence was, so much, expected of me?
My mother tells a story about how, when I was just a few months old, she would place me in my little carrier on the kitchen counter, at an angle so that I could turn one way to watch her sipping tea and reading at the table and the other way to watch her stirring sauce at the stove. As long as I could see her, I wouldn’t make a sound. Walking around the room, she would catch me tracking her like a tiny predator.
“Your eyes,” she says “were so much like mine that it startled me. Except they were darker and more opaque somehow, and almost unblinking.”
She tells this story proudly. I think I know why she tells it.
“Even then,” you were so self-sufficient,” she says. That phrase that is synonymous with independent. That phrase that is the antidote to feelings of responsibility, of obligation. With it, I believe she aims to soften the glare of all the time I spent longing for her. Is that what Seth meant too, when he said that my independence is one of the things he loved about me?
Another example of the rules about silence: “Why does your teacher know that I’m divorced?” my father asked me when he came home from my second grade parent-teacher conference. He was looking into his scotch as though he might find the answers there, as though he was not interested in whatever answers I had to offer. I had said enough already. When he tucked me into bed that night, I asked him for a story.
“Not tonight,” he said.
My mother leaving was a source of shame for him. I carry that shame too. I learned, that night, to carry it quietly.
If identity were a terrain, we would describe it—understand it—in terms of rocks and soil, vegetation and organisms. We would be concerned with the materials of which it is made, the structure of those materials, the processes that made them. We would note how all those things have changed over time. In the event of a dramatic change—grassland dried to desert, jungle cleared to farm, skyscrapers collapsed to detritus—we might pay particular attention to absence. What does not exist, or no longer exists, and why. Why, for example, the trees are all hollow inside.
In Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon, after her father dies when she is just a little girl, Pilate Dead leaves an unnamed town in Michigan and drifts alone to her parents’ hometown in Virginia, making many stops and having many adventures along the way. She was born without a navel—a center, that corporal evidence of maternal linkage. Her mother died before she was born. She fought her way out of the womb. She carries with her a geography book, a sack of bones, and a mysterious song in her throat. These things are the only legacy that ties her to the past. But, she does not know what they mean. She collects rocks as she journeys so that no more of the substance of time can be lost to her, so that she will remember where she has been. It is only when the full lyrics of her song are discovered that she learns about her ancestors and the homeland that is, perhaps, what she has been seeking for so long in her geography book. It is only then that she learns that the bones she carries are her father’s. This knowledge, the roots it causes to suddenly sprout from her, set her free. The idea of roots setting a person free is unintuitive, but deracination from the past, from land, from family, makes for an unstable present. We must have, or we will always search for, a place to bury our bones.
Nadia Owusu is a Brooklyn-based writer and urban planner. She grew up in Rome, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Kumasi, and London. She is a degree candidate at the Mountainview MFA and is working on a memoir about the fault lines of identity. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in LUMINA, Catapult, The Cossack Review, The Huffington Post, Assignment, and The Rumpus.