Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s My American Jon
Culled From Binyavanga Wainana‘s Blog
My American Jon
There is something forlorn about Baltimore; I thought of this every Thursday when my taxi sped down Charles Street on my way to the train station to visit Jon in New York City. The buildings were connected to one another in faded slumping rows, but what really held my attention was the people: hunched in puffy jackets, waiting for buses, slouching in corners, making me wonder again and again why the dankest, drabbest parts of all the American cities I knew were full of black people. My taxi drivers were mostly Punjabi or Ethiopian. It was an Ethiopian who asked where my accent was from and then said, “You don’t look African at all,” when I told him Nigeria.
“Why don’t I look African?” I asked.
“Because your blouse is too tight.”
“It is not too tight,” I said.
“I thought you were from Jamaica or one of those places,” he said, looking in the rearview with both disapproval and concern. “You have to be very careful or America will corrupt you.”
Later, I told Jon about this conversation and how the driver’s sincerity had infuriated me and how I had gone to the station bathroom to see if my pink blouse was too tight. Jon laughed. But I was sure he understood; this was during the early months, the good months of our relationship.
We met at a poetry reading. I had come up to New York to hear the new Nigerian poet Chioma Ekemma read from her Love Economies. During the Q&A, the questions were not about why she chose to write poems without active verbs, or which poets she admired, but what could be done about poverty in Nigeria and would women ever achieve equality there and wasn’t she lucky that she could come to America and find her voice? She was gracious – too gracious, I thought. Then Jon raised his hand from two rows ahead of me and said tourism was the easiest way to fix the Nigerian economy and it was a shame Nigeria was not tourist friendly. No hostels. No good roads. No back packers. He spoke with absolute authority. Chioma Ekemma nodded enthusiastically. I raised my hand and said one could fix an economy in other ways that did not involve richer people going to gawk at the lives of poorer people who could never gawk back. There was some scattered clapping; I noticed the most vigorous came from the black people. Chioma Ekemma said something conciliatory and moved on to the next question. She was clearly thinking of keeping the peace so that as many people as possible would buy her book.
Jon was staring at me; a white man wearing a metal wristband who thought he could pontificate about my country irritated me. I stared back. I imagined him taking in my afro-shaped twists, my severe black frames, with distaste. But there was something else between us, between the chairs and people separating us: a sparkle, a star, a spark. His face was solemn when he came over after the reading and said I had really felt strongly back there and did I want to get coffee and have a little bit more of a debate. It amused me, the way he said ‘debate.’ But we did debate, about devaluation and deregulation and debt, and later, when we kissed at Penn station in a sudden press of our bodies before I got on the train, it was as if the debate was continuing, the way our tongues darted around inside our mouths without meeting. He had never been with a black woman; he told me this the following weekend with a self-mocking toss of his head, as if this were something he should have done long ago but had somehow neglected. I laughed and he laughed and in the morning sunlight that streamed in through the windows of his apartment, his skin took on a bright and foreign translucence. After we broke up two years later, I would tell people that race was the reason, that he was too white and I was too black and the midway too skewed in his favor. In truth, we broke up after I cheated. The cheating was very good, me on top gliding and moaning and grasping the hair on the chest of the other man. But I told Jon that it had meant nothing. I told him that I had hated myself although I was filled with well-being, with a sublime sense not just of satisfaction but of accomplishment.
At first, Jon was disbelieving. “No, you didn’t have a one-night stand. You’re such a liar.”
I did lie to him sometimes, playful little lies like calling to say I could not come that weekend when I was just outside his door. But I did not lie about the big things.
“It’s true,” I said.
He got up and turned down the volume of the stereo and paced and looked through the tall windows at the cars and people below. Unknown Soldier was playing. Jon loved Fela Kuti; it was the reason he’d visited Nigeria and attended Nigerian events, perhaps the reason he thought he knew how to save Nigeria.
“Why?” he asked finally.
I should not have been pleased by the prospect of telling Jon why I had cheated. I sat down on the sofa and said, “It was desire.”
It was desire. It felt as though gentle peppers had been squirted at the bottom of my stomach, a surge of pure aching desire that I was grateful for feeling and was determined not to waste.
“Desire?” Jon was watching me. Maybe he was thinking that it had always been good between us. So I got up and held him close and said that even though it had been a physical desire, the act itself had meant nothing because my self-loathing made pleasure impossible. Jon did not push me away. He said, “The sin is not the sex, Amaka, the sin is the betrayal. So it doesn’t matter whether or not you enjoyed it.”
That all-knowing tone of Jon’s had always made me stiffen. If the circumstances were different, I would have asked him – did the people at Yale teach you how to talk about things you know nothing about with such authority? I had often asked him this in the past. Such as when, two or so months into our relationship, I arrived at his apartment and he kissed me and gestured to the table and said, “Surprise. Tickets to Paris for three days. We leave tonight. You’ll be back in time to teach Tuesday.”
“Jon, I just cannot jet off to Paris. I have a Nigerian passport and I have to apply for a visa.”
“Come on, you’re an American resident. You don’t need a visa to go to Paris.”
“No you don’t.”
After I showed him on the Internet that Nigerian citizens who were resident in America did in fact need a visa to get into Europe – a process that required bank statements, health insurance, all sorts of proof that you would not stay back and become a burden to Europe – Jon muttered “ridiculous” as though it was the French embassy and not he who had been wrong. We did go to Paris, though. Jon changed the ticket dates. We went together to the French Embassy but I went alone to the window where a woman wearing silver eye-shadow glanced at me, at my passport, back at me, and said she would not approve the visa because Nigerian passport-holders were high-risk and it seemed suspicious to her that I was going to Paris for just three days. “But…” I started to say and she made an impatient gesture and pushed my documents across under the glass. Jon got up then, tall and sinewy and angry, and told her I was going to Paris as his guest and my documents included his bank statements and my employment letter and insurance and everything else, if only she’d look at them. “We’re together,” he added, as if it was necessary to make it clear. The woman smirked. She said I should have explained myself better. She made a show of looking through the documents and said the visa would be ready for pick-up in two days.
It filled me with a dizzying pride, how Jon would often stand up for me, speak for me, protect me, make me omelets, give me pedicures in the bubbling foot bath, slip his hand into mine as we walked, speak in the first person plural. “O na-eji gi ka akwa: he holds you like an egg,” Aunty Adanna said admiringly when she finally accepted that I was serious with a white man and asked me to bring him to lunch. Aunty Adanna was one of those Nigerian immigrants who, when they spoke to white people, adopted a risible American accent. I took Jon to her seven-room home in Columbia, outside Baltimore, and suddenly she was calling her son ‘Mek,’ my bewildered teenage cousin whom we had always called Nnaemeka, and talking about how good he was at golf. She spoke of fufu and soup, which Jon had eaten many times before in New York, as if Nigerian food could not be worthy unless it was like something American. This is like your mashed potatoes, she told him, this is just like your clam chowder. She spoke of her swimming pool needing to be drained. She told anecdotes about the patients at her medical practice. Jon asked when last she had been back in Nigeria and she said it had been six years; she could not bear the dirt and chaos and she did not know what the matter was with all of those corrupt people in government. Matter came out sounding like marah. Even though Jon had not asked, she proudly told him she had lived in America for eighteen years, that she had sponsored my trip here eight years ago after my Nigerian university kept going on strike after strike. I stabbed the chicken in my soup and said nothing. I was ashamed. I was ashamed that she did not have books in her house and that when Jon brought up Zimbabwe, she had no idea what was going on there and so to cover my shame I muttered ‘philistine’ as we drove away. “Nigerian doctors and engineers and lawyers don’t read anything unless it has the possibility of leading them to bigger paychecks,” I said. Jon laughed and said it had nothing to do with Nigeria, it was the same for the American bourgeoisie and, leaning over to kiss me, said that Aunty Adanna had been sweet, the way she was so keen to make him comfortable. It wasn’t sweet, it was pathetic, but I liked that Jon said that and I liked that he wanted to be liked by my family.
I had never felt that love I read about in books, that inexorable thing that made characters take all sorts of unlikely decisions. By the time I met Jon, I had convinced myself that the feeling was like an orgasm; a certain percentage of women would never have one after all. At first, each long weekend with Jon in New York was a pleasant break to look forward to after teaching three days a week at the Shipley school. Soon, each weekend became something I longed for, and then something I needed. I realized that what I felt for Jon was becoming an inexorable thing when I saw the flyer advertising a teaching position in a New York City private academy on a board outside the general office and immediately went in to ask the secretary Nakeya if she knew more. She shook her head and said it wasn’t a good idea. “They like you here and you’ll rise quickly if you stay, Amaka,” she said. I persisted. She said the academy was a good place although the pay at Shipley was better, the student body there was richer, though, and the class size smaller. She added in a lower voice that they were a little conservative and it was best if I took my twists out for the interview. “You know how our hair can make them feel threatened?” Nakeya asked with a smile. I knew. Why adults would feel threatened by hair has never ceased to amaze me but, after I called the academy and was asked to come in for an interview, I removed my twists and straightened my hair with a hot comb that burned my scalp. I was even willing to buy blond dye. I wanted the job. I wanted to be in New York City with Jon. I had been rashly honest at my Shipley school interview, telling them that I had just graduated from Johns Hopkins graduate creative writing program, had published only a few poems in journals, was struggling to complete a collection, and was unsure how to make a living. For the academy interview, I decided I would be more circumspect. I told the two white men and one Hispanic woman that teaching was my first love and poetry my second. They were attentive, they nodded often as if to show approval. I didn’t tell Jon about it because I wanted to surprise him but after I got the e-mail only three days later, thanking me and telling me they had selected a better-qualified applicant, I told Jon. He smiled, his big generous smile. He asked me to resign from the Shipley school, to move in with him and take some time off and focus on my poetry and, if I was worried about not paying rent, I could do so in kind. We laughed. We laughed so often during the early months. I put up an advertisement for sub-letting my Baltimore apartment, put my furniture in storage, and moved in with Jon.
Later, almost two years later, on the day I told Jon that I had cheated, I wondered whether my moving in had contributed in some way; perhaps things would have been different if I had stayed in Baltimore, visiting for long weekends. That day, it took hours of side-stepping each other, of drinking tea, of Jon lying face up on the couch, before he asked, “Who is he?”
I told him the man’s name, Ifeanyi. We had met years ago at the wedding of a friend of Aunty Adanna’s, he had called me a few times and then, recently, he moved from Atlanta to Harlem and we met for coffee and the desire happened and we took the train to his place.
Jon said, “You gave him what he wanted.”
It was an odd thing for Jon to say, the sort of thing Aunty Adanna, who persisted in speaking about sex as if it were something a woman gave a man at a loss to herself, would say.
I corrected Jon gently. “I took what I wanted. If I gave him anything, then it was incidental.”
“Listen to yourself, just fucking listen to yourself!” Jon’s voice thickened and he got up and shook me and then stopped, but did not apologize. “Amaka, I would never have cheated on you. I didn’t even think about it in the past two years, I didn’t think about it,” he said and I realized that he was already looking at us through the lens of the past tense. It puzzled me, the ability of romantic love to mutate so completely. Where did it go? Was the real thing somehow connected to blood since love for children and parents did not change or die in the way love for romantic partners did?
“You won’t forgive me,” I said.
To Read the full version of the story http://thebinj.blogspot.com/2007/08/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie.html