In all the early photos of my life, you are wearing a long skirt. It is pleated, with an elastic waistband, patterned with purple and red Japanese flowers. I imagine you purchased it from one of the consignment stores in Lincoln Square, their window displays nothing more than dresses and shirts hung on latticed wood wound with fake ivy. I imagine you kept wearing it because the polyester didn’t need to be dry-cleaned and you preferred not to shave your legs.
Outside, on my grandparents’ back lawn, which rolled off into an alleyway, I would crawl between your ankles. I did not want to be near the dog, or my cousins with their large chins and black eyes. My father would tell me to run through the sprinkler, or to play with the peeling block puzzle that had been scattered across the grass, the same one he had played with as a child. But I wanted to be inside, on the quiet, humming floor of our kitchen, so I tried instead to hide beneath your skirt.
The swimming pool is empty—another one is full but cracked and there are leaves floating in it. I’m sitting with my grandfather. He’s blind and our point of contact is a limit bolts of recognition pass through.
He saw me once in a pool under the water so he sees this in his mind often when he’s near me. He tells me about swimming across a river. Where is this river? I see branches with blue-black berries on them sinking into the water, each berry so loaded with his memory and my imagination they burst with their own reality.
Now I’m thinking of the time my father worked in the horse stables for Tom Wilson. This was after the coal mines had shut down for good, and at 40 years old, after spending most of his adult life underground, he now found himself adrift. I was just 13 then, and while I was certainly old enough to understand the strain the loss of his union job put on our family, my parents did what they could to shield me from the realities that lay ahead.
When you arrive at Umuahia by 10pm to visit your cousins for the Christmas holiday, because their house is closer to your school than your parents’ house in Lagos, you will pass by the tall square-shaped tower with a sign at its peak on all four sides proclaiming “Welcome to God’s own state.” When you get to the bus park, do not attempt to leave without calling your cousin to pick you up in his black, battered catering van. If you do, you will wander in the dark night, pulling your noisy roller bag behind you, looking for your cousin’s house in Amuzukwu. You will wonder again for the umpteenth time why the capital of Abia state does not have functioning street lights, and the rationale behind the governor ordering transport companies not to move about after 9pm for security reasons. You will ask questions of two people in white cherubim and seraphim robes sitting in front of a church and you will be directed to the wrong place. Then you will give up and walk to the only landmark you know—Shoprite. You will call your cousin with your phone battery on 4%, fervently hoping you are not robbed before he gets there. You would be disillusioned by this experience if your mind hadn’t already given your past experiences the surreal quality of a fairy tale since the two times you were here as a child.
“All my life I’ve been waiting,” says my father-in-law, through the stall door. We have stopped at a rest area along the interstate, halfway between our homes. I would meet him back in the car, if only he would stop waxing poetic.
“Frank?” I face the mirror, smoothing the hair over my thinning spot. “I’ll be—”
“First for school to end,” he interrupts. “Then for my twenties, then for success. Marriage, children, et cetera. For them to leave. For their children. Then the waiting became less conspicuous. Waiting for the cry of boiled water. For the paper. For spring. It took a mighty long time to understand that what I’d been waiting for wasn’t each thing, actually, but the chance to wait for whatever came next.”