Table of Contents
ALSO BY DINAW MENGESTU
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2010 by Dinaw Mengestu
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions. Published simultaneously in Canada
The author acknowledges permission to quote from:
Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus
by Rainer Maria Rilke,
translated by A. Poulin, Jr. Copyright © 1975, 1976, 1977 by A. Poulin, Jr. All rights reserved.
“Pastoral” by William Carlos Williams, from
Collected Poems: Volume 1, 1909-1939.
Copyright © 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mengestu, Dinaw, date.
How to read the air / Dinaw Mengestu.
eISBN : 978-1-101-44435-1
1. Children of immigrants—Fiction. 2. Ethiopians—United States—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
pour toutes les belles choses
don’t understand? Throw the emptiness in your arms out into that space we breathe; maybe birds will feel the air thinning as they fly deeper into themselves.
RAINER MARIA RILKE
, Duino Elegies
It was four hundred eighty-four miles from my parents’ home in Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, a distance that in a seven-year-old red Monte Carlo driving at roughly sixty miles an hour could be crossed in eight to twelve hours, depending on certain variables such as the number of road signs offering side excursions to historical landmarks, and how often my mother, Mariam, would have to go to the bathroom. They called the trip a vacation, but only because neither of them was comfortable with the word “honeymoon,” which in its marrying of two completely separate words, each of which they understood on its own, seemed to imply when joined together a lavishness that neither was prepared to accept. They were not newlyweds, but their three years apart had made them strangers. They spoke to each other in whispers, half in Amharic, half in English, as if any one word uttered too loudly could reveal to both of them that, in fact, they had never understood each other; they had never really known who the other person was at all.
Learning a new language was, in the end, not so different from learning to fall in love with your husband again, Mariam thought. While standing in front of the bathroom mirror early in the morning, she often told herself, in what she thought of as nearly flawless diction, “Men can be strange. Wives are different.” It was an expression she had heard from one of the women at the Baptist church that she and her husband had begun attending. A group of women were standing in the parking lot after the sermon was over, and one of them had turned to Mariam and said, “Men can be so strange. Wives are just different.”
At the time she had simply repeated the words back, almost verbatim, “Yes. That is true. Men
be strange,” because that was the only way that she could be certain that what she said was understood by everyone. What she would have liked to say was far more complicated and involved a list of sizable differences that by any other standards would have been considered irreconcilable. Regardless, since arriving in America six months earlier, she had pushed herself to learn new things about her husband, like why, for example, he spoke to himself when no one seemed to be looking, and why some days, after coming home from work, he would sit parked in the driveway for an extra ten or twenty minutes while she watched him from behind the living room curtains. On some nights he would wake up and leave the bedroom, careful not to rouse her but always failing because most nights Mariam hardly slept at all. He would lie down on the couch in the living room naked, and from the bedroom she would eventually hear him let out a small whimper followed by a grunt, and he would return to bed and sleep soundly until the morning. My mother learned these things and filed them into a corner of her brain that she thought of as being specifically reserved for facts about her husband. And in just the same way, she pushed herself to try new words and form new sentences in English, because just as there was a space reserved for her husband, there was another for English, and another one for foreign foods, and another for the names of streets near her house. She learned to say, “It was a pleasure to meet you.” And she learned individual words, like “scattered” and “diligent” and “sarcastic.” She learned the past tense. For example, I was tired yesterday, instead of: I am tired yesterday, or Yesterday tired I am. She learned that Russell Street led to Garfield Street, which would then take you to Main Street, which you could follow to I-74, which could take you east or west to anywhere you wanted to go. Eventually they would all make sense. Verbs would be placed in the right order, sarcasm would be funny, the town would be familiar: past, present, future, and husband, they could all be understood if given enough patience.
At this point in their marriage they had spent more time apart than together. She added up the days by rounding up some months, rounding down a few others. For every one day they had spent together, 3.18 had been spent apart. To her, this meant a debt had to be repaid, although who owed the other what remained unclear. Is it the one who gets left behind who suffers more, or is it the one who’s sent out alone into the world to forage and create a new life? She had always hated numbers, but since most of the English she heard still escaped her, she now took comfort in them and searched for things to add. At the grocery store she calculated the cost of everything she brought to the register before she got there: a can of peas, seventy-eight cents; a package of salt, forty-nine cents; a bag of onions, forty cents. The smiling faces behind the register always offered a few words out loud before saying the total. All of them were lost on her, but what difference did it make if she didn’t know how to take a compliment, banter, or understand what the phrase “two-for-one” meant. She knew the number at the end, and that number, because it didn’t need translation, was power, and the fact that she knew it as she went up to the register filled her with a sense of accomplishment and pride unlike anything she had known since coming here. It made her feel, in its own quiet fleeting way, as if she were a woman to be reckoned with, a woman whom others would someday come to envy.
She never knew what her husband had gone through in the three years they had been apart, nor had she ever really tried to imagine. Say America enough times, try to picture it enough times, and you end up with a few skyscrapers stuck in the middle of a cornfield with thousands of cars driving around. The one picture she had received during those three years was of him sitting in the driver’s seat of a large car, the door open, his body half in the car, half out. He kept one arm on the steering wheel, the other balanced on his leg. He looked handsome and dignified, his mustache neatly trimmed, his thick curly hair sculpted into a perfect ball that highlighted the almost uncanny resemblance his head had to the globe that her father kept perched on top of his chest of drawers.
When she first saw the picture she didn’t believe the car was his. She thought he had found it parked on the side of the road and had seized the opportunity to show himself off, which was indeed almost exactly what he had done. Still, that didn’t stop her from showing the picture to her mother, sisters, and girlfriends, or from writing on the back, in English:
. She expected other pictures would eventually follow: pictures of him standing in front of a large house with a yard; pictures of him in a suit with a briefcase in hand; and then later, as the days, weeks, and months collided, and two years was quickly approaching three, she began to wait for pictures of him with his arm around another woman, with two young children at his side. She had secretly feared the latter would happen from the day he first left, because who had ever heard of a man waiting for his wife? The world didn’t work that way. Men came into your life and stayed only as long as you could convince them to. She even named the children for him: the boy Adam and the girl Sarah, names that she would never have chosen for her own children because they were common and typical, and Mariam’s children, when they came, were going to be extraordinary.
When no such pictures arrived, she wanted to write him and tell him to show her a picture of him in the middle of something, a square, a city park, a picture in which he played just one, minor role.
“Show me a picture of you doing something,” she had wanted to write, but that wasn’t it exactly. What she wanted was to see him somehow fully alive in a picture, breathing, walking, laughing, living his life without her.
On the morning they left for Nashville, my mother packed a small suitcase with two weeks’ worth of underwear, three heavy wool sweaters she had bought at a garage sale for two dollars apiece, and pants and shirts suitable for summer, fall, and winter, even though it was the first week of September and so far the days had been nothing but mild, sunny, and occasionally even too warm for the thin cotton tank tops she had seen other women wearing as they walked casually through the aisles of the grocery store, through shopping malls, and down the deserted Main Street. Those women were neither slim nor graceful. They were plain, pale, and average, and to her eyes entirely indistinguishable one from another, which was precisely what she resented and envied the most. The trip was supposed to last from start to finish four nights and five days, but as she stuffed her suitcase to its limits, she decided it was best to always be prepared for the unexpected, for the broken-down car, for the potential wrong turn, for the long walk at night that for one reason or another never ended. She had packed up her entire life once before, and now six months later, if she had learned anything at all about herself, it was that she could do with far less. She could, if she wanted, get away with almost nothing.