1. Unwelcome Reunion Unwelcome Reunion
When I was twenty-eight, my stepmother Anabel came to New York on vacation. She was living, at the time, in Pakistan, where she worked for a UN agency. At a restaurant a few blocks from my Chinatown apartment, we ate noodle soup and drank red wine. That night, Anabel told me my father did not die of cancer as I believed. He died, she claimed, of AIDS.
I don’t remember why neither my sister Yasmeen nor my half brother Kwame joined us for that dinner—they both lived in New York at the time. Yasmeen worked the counter at a taco shop in Red Hook. Kwame was a sophomore in college.
My father had died fourteen years earlier, when I was weeks away from my fourteenth birthday. The argument that culminated in Anabel telling me he died of AIDS was over nothing of consequence:
“After dinner, let’s go see some live music,” Anabel said.
“I can’t,” I said. “I have plans with friends.”
“But I’m your mother and I’m visiting,” she said. “We never see each other.”
I shrugged. We ate, for a few minutes, in silence. Then:
“Chew your food,” Anabel said.
“I am chewing. Calm down.”
“Who is not calm? Respect your elders. Respect me.”
“You’re acting unhinged,” I said.
I knew that my words—you’re acting unhinged—were shots, fired. Anabel, I predicted, would detonate. Madness, I’d observed, terrified and disgusted her. Perhaps this was because she had experienced some form of it after my father died: depression, I believed, or PTSD. For a year or more, she spent nights crying into a wineglass. Her moods, then, teetered between cold silence and hot rage. In recent years, though, she had reinvented herself as unflappable and even-keeled. She spoke of other people’s breakdowns, anxiety, and depression in hushed, haughty tones. One had to be strong, she said often, in the face of adversity. Allowing oneself to become morbid or hysterical helped no one. Disintegration was an indulgence. She was, she insisted, happy with her life because she had chosen to be happy with her life. She chose happiness every day. If I brought up the years surrounding my father’s death, even to say how far we’d come, she’d change the subject. She seemed unwilling to entertain the possibility that she might experience any form of madness ever again.
I had never seen Anabel angrier than when I called her crazy—unhinged. I did this, from time to time, to win fights. The suggestion that her reinvented self was not entirely believable seemed more than she could bear. Her mask, I must say, was a good one. Only those who knew her best could see through it. Beneath the smooth, unlined skin, muscles twitched faintly, blood bulged in veins.
In the Chinese restaurant, I wanted to tear Anabel’s mask off. I wanted to do it in public. I wanted her red-faced and exploding. I wanted to remind her I knew who she really was. She couldn’t fool me. On the receiving end of her rage, I wanted to appear composed, and superior in my composure. It wasn’t that I cared so much what the people in the restaurant thought of me or of her. It was that I knew a public display was not something she would recover easily from. She would play the scene over and over in her mind. The memory would return to agitate her when she least expected it. She would always remember my face—my undisturbed face. She would always remember the sharp looks of strangers, their shaking heads. My desire to tear Anabel’s mask off was not, upon reflection, about what she said. Defensiveness is aroused easily between mothers and daughters, between stepmothers and daughters. Between Anabel and me, the defensiveness could very quickly turn destructive.
Instead of an explosion, though, Anabel’s words hissed from between clenched teeth:
“Unhinged? How dare you. After all I have sacrificed for you,” she said.
“What did you sacrifice?” I asked. “You only kept me around because it meant you’d get more of my father’s money. You made it abundantly clear you didn’t really want me or Yasmeen.”
I knew that Anabel’s reasons for becoming my guardian, and Yasmeen’s, after our father died were more complicated than this. Wanting us and not wanting us were states that likely coexisted in her. They likely coexist in many parents—biological or not. But my intention in that moment was to wound her. This simplified story of her motivations would do damage. For what seemed like a long time, she squinted at me, mouth agape. Then her eyes became calm and cloudless, as though she perceived, in an instant, precisely what to say to win:
“You think your precious father was so perfect? He didn’t die of cancer like you think. He was no angel. He died of AIDS. How do you think he got AIDS?”
The shape of my relationship with Anabel had always been jagged. After I moved to New York at eighteen, we drifted in and out of each other’s life without explanation, without apologies. Before meeting for dinner at the Chinese restaurant, it had been over a year since we last spoke. She Facebook messaged me to say she would be in New York; to suggest we get together. Neither of us acknowledged the yearlong silence. In greeting, we kissed each other on both cheeks. We complimented each other’s appearance: her braids, my earrings. There was no clear reason for the not speaking. Or, rather, there were a lifetime of reasons, a lifetime of unuttered resentments on both sides.
I met Anabel for the first time when I was five.
“This is Anabel,” my father said simply, “we’re getting married.”
I don’t remember if this first meeting took place at an airport or in the house in Rome where we would become a family. Yasmeen and I had recently joined our father in Rome after living with his sister—our aunt Harriet—in England for two and a half years. Anabel looked to me like a movie star: tall, thin, and otherworldly in her beauty, with high cheekbones, plush lips, and a large gap between her two front teeth. A pinky finger would fit nicely in that gap. I saw love in my father’s eyes, saw it was not directed at me, seethed. Yasmeen’s face, on the other hand, was open with hope. She jumped up, hugged Anabel. There was nothing my sister longed for more than a mother. Yasmeen called strangers in the grocery store Mommy when they bent to pinch her cheeks. She clung to our aunts, our father’s female friends, and even our sour-faced German nanny. Those poor little motherless girls, people said.
Anabel patted Yasmeen’s head. She looked at me expectantly. I wrapped my arms around my father. Anabel frowned.
I too longed for a mother, but I think I was already steeled to the reality that I would not have one, not in the same way all the other children I knew had one. But, my father was, I believed, mine. Mine and Yasmeen’s. I did not want to share him with anyone else.
Of those first few months we lived together, before Anabel married my father, I have memories of her glaring at me when I climbed onto my father’s lap while they sat together on the couch drinking gin and tonics. I remember knocking on my father and Anabel’s bedroom door when I woke up scared during a thunderstorm. I remember her whispering that I should leave them alone when they were sleeping. I remember her shutting the door in my face. I remember bitterness broiling in my chest.
It is possible I misread Anabel, that I am misremembering, that my memories are tainted by that bitterness. Or perhaps Anabel was cold toward me because she sensed that I saw her as competition. Maybe she wanted to assert her authority as the woman of the house. I cannot be certain. I am quite certain, however, that as my father and Anabel’s wedding day approached, my bratty behavior intensified.
On the day Yasmeen and I tried on our flower girl dresses, I was at my worst. The dresses were voluminous. We looked like little puffs of yellow cotton candy. Our headbands were adorned with giant bows. I was the kind of child who liked both rolling around in the mud and playing princess. I loved a bit of frill. But I was determined to hate that dress. It was itchy, I complained. Anabel ignored me.
“We really have to get them a relaxer,” she said to my father. “They’re growing dreadlocks.”
She stuck her long, sharp nails into my coarse, tangled hair and yanked. It hurt a little. I exaggerated the pain—grimaced and cried out. Anabel smoothed her own freshly relaxed hair as though to make sure my nappy-ness wasn’t contagious. My father did not come to my defense. I burst into tears.
“I don’t want a relaxer,” I wailed. “If you make me get one, I’ll shave my head bald. And I won’t wear these stupid frilly socks either. They make my shoes too tight.”
I was not crying about my pinched toes or tangled hair. Anabel was taking from me what mattered most. The house and my father had been redecorated: Out with the old comfy couch; off with Baba’s beard. I was not about to give Anabel everything she wanted, not without a fight.
Down the aisle, I walked without socks, without a relaxer. I had to walk down the aisle, but I did so with dignity.
Within a year, Anabel and I had established our territories in the house in Rome. Anabel ruled the formal living room with its uncomfortable flowered settees and Persian rugs. In there, she and my father drank cocktails and white wine, her long legs stretched out over his lap. She whispered her words, but her laughter was a soprano crescendo. I imitated her laugh in the mirror. My territory was my father’s study. In there, we read books together in silence, him in his swivel chair, me lying on the rug. Or we wrote stories and read them aloud. He gave me editorial feedback. His stories, to me, were always perfect.
Each time we moved—from Rome to Addis Ababa, from Addis Ababa to Kampala, then back to Rome again—Anabel and I took over corresponding spaces in our new house. In our house in Addis, my father did not have a study. Instead, I owned the back porch. My father and I read and wrote to the songs of insects and birds.
Sometimes, when the UN agency sent my father on an extended mission to another country, Anabel and I settled into an uneasy peace. When he was gone, I forgot we were adversaries, that we were not supposed to love each other. She seemed to soften as well. Our conversations grew longer and less barbed. We laughed at each other’s jokes.
When I was eleven, I got my first period, on the day my father was to return from a mission to Northern Uganda. The blood in my underwear and shorts terrified me. I had not known that the bleeding would be so heavy; had not known that, unlike pee, it could not be held. The idea of uttering the necessary words about what was bleeding where to my father was horrifying, and he wasn’t there anyway, so I told Anabel. We went for a drive to get thick sanitary pads and ice cream. In the car, she told me I was a woman now, a beautiful woman. There would be no shortage of men, she said, who would try to take, take, take from me.
“Remember,” she said, “you can make them weak by not giving them what they want. Then you are the one with power.”
I did not understand what Anabel was saying. I knew nothing, yet, about what men would want from me; did not know what a period was for. But she had called me a woman. She had called me beautiful. I wished we could always be like we were in that moment: two women in a car with the windows down, our tongues darting in and out of vanilla ice cream, talking about beauty and power to a Whitney Houston soundtrack.
But, later that evening, when my father returned with duty-free gifts—perfume for Anabel, Toblerone for me and Yasmeen, a toy train for Kwame—Anabel and I retreated to our rooms. I waited—I imagined we both waited—to see which door my father would open.
It was only after my father was diagnosed with cancer, after he was bedridden, that Anabel and I gave up our territories. We knew then that we might both lose him. We gave up our territories but not our resentments.
My father’s death demolished me. It was perhaps because I had never properly grieved my mother’s leaving that I approached mourning him with fierce intention. Grieving, I learned, was a process of story construction. I needed to construct a story so I could reconstruct my world. There were decisions to make about what to put in and what to leave out.
In my version of the story of my father’s illness and death, my father and I were the protagonists: a hero father and a daughter who loved him more than anything. My siblings—Yasmeen and Kwame—were background players. This was self-centered, and I did not care. My father’s illness, in my story, happened almost as much to me as it did to him. I watched him shrink. I smelled his stale, dying breath as I lay beside him telling him pointless stories about school, and films, and what I ate for lunch. I heard him cry out from pain or humiliation when his bowels failed and he woke up in a pool of his own feces.
My journal from that time is full of entries about his weight loss, hair loss, and chronic boils—the side effects of his aggressive course of chemotherapy. I noted the shapes of his protruding bones and the color of the pus that oozed from his boils when they burst.
Nowhere in those journals does Anabel appear, even though she was his primary nurse, even though his sickbed was also her bed, even though she was always there, cleaning vomit from the rugs and rubbing lotion on his cracked toes. Not once did I thank her for those things. I was already writing her out of the story, my story. I did not thank her, but I did blame her.
I remember the time my father asked for an apple and Anabel told him, voice full of venom, to get it himself. She knew he could no longer walk. She called a priest to say a prayer over him, something he would not have wanted, as he did not believe in prayer or God. When he tried to protest with the few words he still had, she raised her hand to silence him. I saw her actions not as the lashing out of a person in pain, but as proof I was the one who really loved him, she was the evil stepmother. My story, you see, required a villain.
“He didn’t want a priest,” I said. “He told me he didn’t want any religion done to him. Those were his words.”
“Oh, shut up,” she said. “Just shut up.”
I think she apologized later—for the shut up, not for the priest. But I am not certain about that.
After my father died, my mother told me, over the phone, that she would not come to Rome for the funeral. She would not come to claim Yasmeen and me. I vowed never to forgive her, never to speak to her again. Yasmeen, I think, was reluctant to lose another parent. She looked terrified when I told her our relationship with our mother was over for good. But my father had told her to trust me as her older sister and protector. He had told me never to betray her trust. Yasmeen let me make the decision.
“Stay with me,” Anabel said when I told her about the call with my mother. “I promised your father I would take care of you and Yasmeen. And I need you. You’re my daughters.”
That day, Anabel and I wept together. We agreed to make a family of four: the two of us, Yasmeen, and Kwame. I will never forget that Anabel claimed me when my mother did not. But it was not long before we fell back into old patterns. We argued over my father’s soul: if and where it lived and what it wanted. Anabel wanted to move on. A friend of my father’s helped her get an entry-level position in the Rome office of the same UN agency where my father had worked. It was her first job. She had attained a bachelor’s degree in accounting from an American university in Rome after she married my father, but she had not gone into the workforce. In her new job, she had a lot to learn and to get used to. She wanted to build a new life. I, on the other hand, refused to let go.
Anabel believed in heaven. I believed in memories. We fought over what my father left behind, both inanimate and intangible. She locked up his papers—notes, poems—so I could not read them. I squirreled away duffel bags of his socks and ties and hid them in the back of my closet. Yasmeen sided with me, though she was too weak to fight much. She smoked cigarettes and took laxatives. She weighed herself and counted calories. She counted crumbs before placing them on her tongue. My fury took up enough space for both of us.
“Get out of my face! I miss Baba!” I shouted at Anabel when she switched off the television and insisted I stop moping around.
“Go dig up his grave, then,” Anabel said. “No wonder your mother didn’t want you.”
We didn’t speak for a week after that fight. Then, one night, Anabel crawled into bed with me, heaving with un-cried tears. My father’s ghost woke her up, she said, tried to lure her into a rosy light. I held Anabel’s clammy hand beneath the covers and wondered why my father’s ghost did not come to me too.
We lived in Rome for two more years after my father’s death. Then we moved to Kampala, Uganda, where Anabel had been transferred. As was true of Rome, we had previously lived in Kampala with my father. He had been stationed there for two years. Memories of him were everywhere. When we arrived at the airport in Entebbe, it was my father’s former driver Edward who picked us up. Daily, we drove past the house we lived in as a family of five. The international school Yasmeen, Kwame, and I attended had not changed at all. I played soccer on the same field where my father had once cheered me on as I won three blue ribbons at a sports day: the 100 meters, the 200 meters, a relay.
As a teenager, I had a lot of freedom in Kampala. I became close to a group of girls and the boys who followed them around. We went out at night—danced, smoked pot, got drunk, kissed in the corners of nightclubs. Anabel also stayed out late. She started dating. She only occasionally asked where I was going, what I was doing. Only very rarely—usually when she was in a bad mood—did she tell me I couldn’t go out. On one such occasion, we argued. I called her insane. I was shocked to feel Anabel’s hands at my shoulders, shoving me hard onto my bed. I looked up at her. She raised her hand, yelped, pummeled my head with punches. I curled into a ball, protecting my head with my hands. She did not hit me hard enough to hurt me physically. It was not my body she wanted to bruise. I did not hit back. There was a line, I knew, that must not be crossed. The beating ended abruptly when eight-year-old Kwame wandered into the room clutching his stuffed frog. At seeing his mother hitting his big sister, he burst into tears. He screamed until Anabel picked him up and carried him out of the room. That night, he slept at the foot of my bed. The sound of his soft asthmatic snores was both irritating and comforting. If it weren’t for him, I thought, I would wake Yasmeen up and we would leave this house, move to Ghana or England with my father’s family, move in with anyone but her.
The next morning, I came home to find an open Bible on my desk. Highlighted in yellow was Proverbs 29:15: The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. I could hear Anabel shuffling about in the hallway. I sat still, silent. For days after, Anabel and I refused to meet eyes. I stole money from her purse and bought three bottles of gin. When she had a colleague over for dinner, I got wasted. By dessert, I was slurring my words and laughing at the wrong things, laughing at Anabel. Her face was flushed but she said nothing. At a stalemate, we abandoned the battle. We never discussed it and Anabel never hit me again. The anger simmered. We were angry at death, at cancer, at the sky for still being blue, the rivers for not flooding, Kampala for not changing. But there was nothing we could do about those things. We had only each other to accuse.
At eighteen, I moved from Kampala to New York to attend Pace University. At first, Anabel helped with my tuition, but when the money my father left for my education had been spent, she stopped.
To finish school, I went into heavy debt, and worked two jobs—one at a restaurant and one at a nightclub. Even that wasn’t enough for tuition, rent, bills, transportation, and food. Some weeks, the staff meal, offered at the restaurant where I worked, was my only meal. I could not afford both groceries and subway rides. I needed to ride the subway to work, so I chose hunger. Once or twice, I sent Anabel an email asking for money to eat or to have my electricity turned back on. Sometimes she sent money, sometimes she did not respond. Between junior and senior years, I took time off school. A tuition bill had gone into collections, and I couldn’t register for classes until it had been paid. Sometime during the period when I was not enrolled in school, Anabel came to New York for a conference. I was determined to go back to school and hoped she’d help me. At a restaurant where I was to meet her and a family friend for dinner, I was turning a corner to join them at the bar when I overheard Anabel say, in Swahili, that I had dropped out of school. She said I could not cut it—having to work and study at the same time. There was some truth to what she said. Being alone in New York, having to fend for myself, learning about money, struggling financially—all of that was a shock to my system. In many ways, my family’s high-mobility, global lifestyle had made me resilient and self-sufficient. But it had, in other ways, made me spoiled. At a young age, I had experienced a great deal of loss. I had been made aware early of the existence of profound suffering in the world—extreme poverty, violence, disease. But, before I moved to New York, I had never done a load of laundry. My father and Anabel paid people to clean for us, cook for us, drive us around.
Being broke, I knew, was very different from being poor. Despite my overdrawn bank account, the advantages and privileges I had accrued through very little effort of my own—my private international school education, my multilingualism, my comfort with navigating institutions and bureaucracy—buoyed me. Those advantages and privileges opened doors. Still, I found it difficult to adjust to my new economic reality. I had always been a good student. In high school, with the exception of mathematics, I was able to get good grades without working too hard. Recently, I found it hard to keep up academically. Often, I didn’t get home from my cocktail waitressing job until four in the morning. The stress of debt took a toll on my ability to focus. I had not failed any classes, but I got C’s. I missed a lot of class. I didn’t do the reading, turned in assignments late, turned in sloppy work.
The truth in Anabel’s words about my failings stung. And she had not acknowledged how hard I was trying, how despite my failings, I was still determined to graduate. I was humiliated, but I did not show it. I hugged Anabel and the family friend. I ordered an expensive glass of wine, an expensive steak. Let her pay, I thought.
In the years after I graduated from university, Anabel came to New York several times—to drop Kwame off at college, for work, to shop. Always, we met for lunch, dinner, or drinks. Sometimes, we got mani-pedis, seated side by side, our toes in bubbling tubs. Our nails were trimmed neatly, filed into shape, and polished with glossy color. Perhaps we both wanted to believe the same could be true of the past. It could not. Beyond those meals, those manicures, she and I did not speak much anymore. Usually, Anabel would be the one to call. Usually, the calls would last just a few minutes. Our conversations were not intimate. We did not talk about what was happening in our lives, except in vague terms: I had been accepted to graduate school, she had taken her first yoga class. I would ask about her family. She would say everyone was fine. She would ask about my aunts in England—my father’s sisters. I would say they were fine.
By the time of the dinner during which Anabel told me my father died of AIDS, it had been a decade since Anabel and I lived under the same roof. She had been transferred from Kampala to Islamabad. It was a dangerous post. To terrorist attacks, she had lost colleagues. I worried about her. I should have told her that. I never did.
When Anabel said my father died of AIDS, I slammed my hands on the table, rose from my chair.
“Liar,” I said.
“You’re acting like a spoiled child,” Anabel said.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” My heart pounded, my head pounded.
“You always blame me for everything,” Anabel said. “It’s not my fault your father was out doing god knows what with god knows who and came home with AIDS.”
“Liar,” I said again and walked away from her, walked out of the restaurant.
Outside, I was stopped by a jolt in my brain, like a shot of electricity, followed by vibration and the quiet but unmistakable sound of an alarm. I held my head with both hands until I could walk again. I cried and screamed all the way home. I didn’t care about the stares. If my father had died of AIDS, it meant that he had deceived me. It meant that I had not known him as well as I thought I had. Anabel had insinuated affairs. I could not, would not, believe her.
“Liar! Liar! Liar!” I shouted.
At home, I crawled under my bed and unearthed the dusty envelope that held a copy of my father’s death certificate. As I read it, I held my breath. By the official ruling, I was reassured: “Causa di morte: Cancro.” Cause of death: Cancer.
“Liar! Liar! Liar!” I shouted.
I shouted liar all night, like a mantra or a prayer. I shouted it to shift the doubt that had lodged in my throat.
For my father, over the years, I wrote several elegies. In them, he was canonized. I needed to believe in something big and pure and godlike. Because I could not bring myself to believe in a god I had never met, a god my father hadn’t believed in, I chose to believe in my father. All his good deeds, I categorized and tabulated: the children he fed in refugee camps in Eritrea; the way he remembered so many of their names; how he always brought me cold Cokes in bed when I had a stomachache; how he paid his youngest sister’s college tuition and his niece’s private school fees; the way his laughter flooded whole rooms, whole houses.
There was nothing in my story, in the elegies, about my father having affairs.
Although I held on to the belief that Anabel was a liar, the vibrations in my brain did not stop. The alarm continued to sound. I believed the vibrations and alarm were caused by an instrument in my brain. My seismometer, I called it. I called it that because I had, since my mother arrived with an earthquake when I was seven, been obsessed with earthquakes and the ways we measure them; the ways we try to understand the size and scale of impending disaster. When I say I believed in my seismometer, I mean it was an irrefutable conviction. I came to know my seismometer was there in the same way I knew I had a mole below the right corner of my bottom lip and a large black oval-shaped birthmark just left of my spine. As a child, I wanted to carve my mole and birthmark out of my skin. As an adult, I could have had them surgically removed. The surgery would have been minor, but by then they were too much a part of me. Once, a photographer photoshopped my mole out of a headshot. I hated the photograph. It didn’t look like me. At first, I couldn’t tell why. When I realized my mole was missing, I was furious. My seismometer was not just characteristic, though. It was basal. I didn’t know if it was killing me, saving me, or both. Its removal, I believed, would be less excision and more amputation.
A few days after Anabel told me my father died of AIDS, I received a voicemail: “Hello, Nadia. This is your mama. Please call me back at this number. We need to talk. Please call me.”
It was the first time I had heard my mother’s voice in over a decade.
From her voice, my seismometer vibrated. I grabbed a jar of coins, raised it above my head, and dropped it, hard. It shattered. I picked up the shards, counted the change. One hundred and eighteen dollars and sixty-four cents. I counted change and glass to quiet my seismometer. I did not stop counting when blood sprang in red dots from the soft pads of my fingertips. The blood, on my tongue, tasted like copper pennies.
The voicemail from my mother had to be deleted, as did the record of her phone number, as did the cheerful messages Anabel left about meeting again before she returned to Pakistan. Anabel, as usual, was ready to move on. I could not. Not this time. I went back to bed for the rest of the day, and the day after that. Yet, even in sleep, the vibrations persisted.